Renowned opera singer Grace Melzia Bumbry’s illustrious career is distinguished not only for its quality and longevity. It’s also notable for shattering racial and musical barriers along the way.
Miss Bumbry has been accorded numerous honors and awards over her long career — but says she is thrilled to have been named one of this year’s Kennedy Center Honorees.
“Stunned, actually,” she says. “I’m overwhelmed with astonishment and gratitude.”
She remembers “a frisson went right through my body” when she realized that her award would be bestowed “under the administration of America’s first black president.”
Miss Bumbry vividly recalls the initial Honors gala in 1978. “Marian Anderson was the first African-American nominee, and I was invited to sing,” she says. “I still remember the rush of excitement,” she says, as she helped honor the brave soprano who had opened the door to her own career.
Born in St. Louis, Mo., in 1937, young Grace was immersed in music from the beginning. Her mother, Melzia, and her father, Benjamin, a railroad worker, sang in the Union Memorial Methodist Church choir. She eventually joined her brothers in the youth choir.
At Charles Sumner High School, she was mentored by voice instructor Kenneth Billups. He immediately recognized her talent and helped nurture her distinctive voice.
In 1954, he arranged an encounter with Anderson, who was in St. Louis on tour just before she was to become the first black singer to star at the Metropolitan Opera. She listened to Grace sing and later helped guide her career.
That same year, Billups encouraged 17-year old Grace to enter a talent contest on local radio station KMOX. She easily won first prize, a $1,000 war bond and a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music. However, the school didn’t admit blacks. The school’s uncomfortable trustees initially offered segregated private lessons to Grace.
Her outraged mother encouraged Grace to continue her training elsewhere. Looking for a way out of their PR pickle, the trustees and KMOX helped get Grace a televised appearance on “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts.” Upon hearing Grace sing a Verdi aria, Godfrey reportedly was moved to tears. She became the show’s 1954 winner, which was a bit like winning today’s “American Idol.”
Offers poured in. Grace ended up at Northwestern University, studying with famed soprano Lotte Lehmann. Lehmann invited her to spend a summer studying at the University of Santa Barbara, where the older singer had established a musical academy.
Miss Bumbry soon perfected her famous, distinctively burnished mezzo-soprano voice. In the background, Miss Anderson also helped by steadily encouraging impresario Sol Hurok to take on Miss Bumbry as a client.
In 1960, Miss Bumbry made her professional stage debut at the Paris Opera. However, it was her surprise German debut the following year that put her on the map. Auditioning for the role of Venus in “Tannhauser” in the Bayreuth Festival — founded by Richard Wagner — she was Wagner grandson and festival director Wieland Wagner’s first choice for the role and the first black to ever sing at the festival.
Many Germans were outraged, creating an operatic firestorm. However, Wagner and Ms. Bumbry were vindicated by a now-legendary opening-night ovation. Her globe-trotting career was launched instantly, and then-first lady Jackie Kennedy quickly invited her to sing at the White House. She soon debuted at London’s Covent Garden and made her Met debut in 1965.
In the 1970s, Miss Bumbry stunned the opera world when she moved to soprano roles. Some critics sniped at her transformation, but she excelled in her newly adopted vocal range, starring in hefty dramatic soprano roles in “Salome,” “Macbeth” and many others, including the first-ever Met production of “Porgy and Bess” in 1985.