Farewell to Grace Bumbry: A Life of Trailblazing Success May 16 2023


Grace Bumbry as herself

Grace Melzia Bumbry (1937-2023) was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on January 4, 1937; the third child of Benjamin Bumbry, a railroad freight handler, and Melzia Bumbry, a teacher, a family of modest meands, deeply religious and highly musical.

[IMAGE] A beautiful black-and-white photograph  signed by a young Grace Bumbry

Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, Grace's passion for music was ignited when she attended as a young girl to the concerts of Marian Anderson. Recognizing her talent, those around her encouraged her to sing. At 16, Grace won first place in a local radio competition, which granted her the chance to perform on the popular "Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout Show." She then pursued her studies at Boston University and Northwestern University, where she encountered the woman who would change her life, Lotte Lehmann.


Thanks to the efforts of Jacqueline Kennedy and the American Embassy in Paris, Bumbry was given an audition at the Paris Opera. She was hired on the spot and made her operatic debut as Amneris in "Aida." Grace Bumbry became the first person of color to perform at the prestigious institution.

Grace Bumbry as Venus

The remarkable success of her performances, at just 23 years old, stirred the opera world, leading to an invitation to audition in Bayreuth for Wieland Wagner, Richard Wagner's grandson, who was producing a new rendition of "Tannhauser." Bumbry was immediately cast as Venus. Upon learning that the new Venus would be a black singer, the press erupted in protest, publishing several critical articles. Wieland Wagner stood by his decision, asserting that his grandfather would have wanted the best voice for the role.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Grace Bumbry as Venus in Wagner's Tannhäuser

Unfazed by the negative press, Bumbry took the stage that memorable evening and made history as the first person of color to be cast in a major role at the esteemed Bayreuth Festspielhaus. The following day, critics dubbed her "Die Schwarze Venus" (The Black Venus), Wagner's newfound shining star, which catapulted her to international fame.


Bumbry's ability to handle international accomplishment and stardom set her apart from the many singers who preceded her. Her physical appearance and stage presence earned her the name "Sex Goddess." She sang Azucena in "Il Trovatore", Adalgisa in "Norma", Ulrica in "Un Ballo in Maschera", Amneris in "Aida", Eboli in "Don Carlo", Lady Macbeth in "Macbeth", Carmen in "Carmen", Orfeo in "Orfeo et Eurydice", Dalila in "Samson et Dalilia", Didon in "Les Troyens", Herodiade in "Herodiade" and Selika in "L'Africaine , among others.


Grace Bumbry as Aida Autograph

Known for making headlines, Bumbry once again shocked the opera world by changing not only her repertoire but also her voice category, transitioning from Mezzo-Soprano to Soprano. This decision provoked an uproar, with many deeming her an instant failure. Speculation arose about her audacity, and there was resentment over the opera world losing a great mezzo-soprano. Despite the infamous blacklist, Bumbry persevered and triumphed.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Grace Bumbry as Aida -one of the roles she tackled as a soprano

From the beginning, Grace Bumbry was an acclaimed recitalist. Her performance merited the exclamation "authentic and keeping with tradition," a style of singing she mastered from her famous teacher, Lotte Lehmann, a master of Lieder.

According to a critique, "Grace Bumbry's performances in major recital halls singing intimate songs, and in operatic roles showcasing the 'Bumbry thrust' left a lasting impression on all those who had the privilege of watching her."


Grace Bumbry believed in passing on her knowledge and passion for opera and music to aspiring artists. Her generosity was evident in her many invitations to teach master's classes at universities and colleges across the globe.

Grace Bumbry Signed Program 1968

In 2009, Bumbry went even further and established The Grace Bumbry Vocal and Opera Academy in Berlin in collaboration with the University of Arts. This program allowed students to study voice and prepare for roles under the guidance of Bumbry and other experienced instructors, focusing on developing a powerful, expressive singing style.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Program for a recital of the American soprano in Kassel, Germany, December 4, 1968.

When she was 81, Bumbry continued to break new ground as she was highly sought-after as a jury member for international vocal competitions. In December 2009, Grace Melzia Bumbry was awarded the most prestigious and coveted recognition in America for contributions to the arts, The Kennedy Center Honors. This momentous occasion once again underscored Bumbry's penchant for firsts.

Bumbry received the honor and celebration from President Barack Obama, America's first African American president, at the first Kennedy Center Honors award ceremony he presided over.


Grace Bumbry's impact on the world of opera extends far beyond her extraordinary performances and impressive list of achievements. Her unwavering dedication to mentorship, advocacy for diversity and inclusion, and her inspiring resilience in the face of adversity have left a lasting legacy that will continue to shape the industry for years to come.

On October 20, 2022, Grace was on a flight from Vienna to New York when she had a stroke. Her health declined over the following months, and she died from related complications at a hospital in Vienna on May 7, 2023, at age 86.

grace bumbry autograph

As we bid farewell to Grace Bumbry, we celebrate her remarkable life and career. Her contributions to the world of opera will never be forgotten, and her voice will continue to resonate in the hearts of music lovers for generations to come. Rest in peace, Grace Bumbry – a true legend and trailblazer.


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