About Grace Bumbry
Grace Bumbry’s obsession with singing began when she was still a child. That obsession—together with a ravishing natural voice, an extraordinary talent, and unwavering determination—led to one of the most illustrious operatic careers of the 20th century.
Moving from one range to the other with breathtaking ease gave her a singular spectrum of roles from Santuzza (Cavalleria rusticana), Ortrud (Lohengrin), Dalila (Samson et Dalila), Adalgisa (Norma), Kundry (Parsifal), Eboli (Don Carlo), Orfeo and Carmen to Salome, Elisabeth (Tannhäuser), Norma, Gioconda, Aïda, Tosca, Medea, Elvira (Ernani), Leonora (Il trovatore and La forza del destino), Bess (Porgy and Bess), and Turandot. She made her San Francisco Opera debut in 1966 as the titular role in Bizet's Carmen and went on to sing lead roles in La Gioconda, Macbeth, and Nabucco.
Her international career began in 1960. She sang Amneris in Aïda at the Paris Opera, a performance that would be covered by the international press and analyzed note for note by one of the most sophisticated audiences in the world.
In 1961, Wieland Wagner, grandson of Richard Wagner, cast Bumbry as Venus in a new production of Tannhäuser. As the Goddess of Love that seduces Wagner’s noble hero, Bumbry would be the first black opera singer to appear at Bayreuth, the world’s most revered shrine to the great composer and his art. It was a move that infuriated a good many conservative opera-goers, many calling it a cultural disgrace. The media frenzy that ensued was global. The performance became one of the most celebrated in history. Thunderous applause rocked the theater for 30 minutes as the cast was brought back to the stage for 42 curtain calls. Jacqueline Kennedy subsequently invited her to sing at the White House. She won the public’s adoration and along the way smashed a racial barrier that would no longer stand in the way of future generations of opera and classical singers.
Decades later, Bumbry was named Honorary UNESCO Ambassador, cited for her achievements as an artist and for her work in support of education, health, and youth causes. At age 84, Bumbry is still on the trailblazing move. She is also a much sought-after jury member of international vocal competitions. In December 2009, she received the most prestigious and coveted award in America for one’s contribution to the arts, The Kennedy Center Honors: a landmark moment that once again epitomizes Bumbry’s tradition for firsts. She received this honour and celebration at the hands of President Barack Obama, America’s first African American president, at the first Kennedy Center Honors award ceremony that he officiated.