Bumbry, 72, was the first black opera singer to appear at Germany’s Wagner festival, Bayreuth, when she was 25. Many conservative opera-goers were outraged but by the end of the performance, the audience applauded for 30 minutes and there were 42 curtain calls.
Grace Bumbry is an American opera singer of great renown, considered one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation, as well as a major soprano for many years. She was a member of an extraordinary and pioneering generation of singers who followed Marian Anderson (including Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett and Reri Grist) in the world of classical music and paved the way for future African-American opera and classical singers.
Bumbry has been inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame. Among other honors, she was bestowed the UNESCO Award, the Distinguished Alumna Award from the Academy of Music of the West, Italy’s Premio Giuseppe Verdi, and was named Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French government.
On December 6, 2009, she was among those honored with the 2009 Kennedy Center Honors, for her contribution to the performing arts.
Bumbry’s voice was rich and sizable, possessing a wide range, and was capable of producing a very distinctive plangent tone. In her prime, she also possessed good agility and bel canto technique (see for example her renditions of the ‘Veil Song’ from Verdi’s Don Carlo in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as her Ernani from the Chicago Lyric Opera in 1984). She was particularly noted for her fiery temperament and dramatic intensity on stage.
More recently, she has also become known as a recitalist and interpreter of lieder, and as a teacher. From the late 1980s on, she seemed to concentrate her career in Europe, rather than in the US. A long time resident of Switzerland, she now makes her home in Salzburg, Austria.