Opera impresario Grace Bumbry mesmerized audiences during a 60-year performance career. She broke racial barriers in 1960 as the first Black soprano to debut in the Paris Opera House. Renowned for exemplary vocals, Bumbry mastered the bel canto technique and the complex transition from soprano to mezzo soprano. On stage, she interpreted Puccini’s direction to sing sweet and tenderly or Verdi’s prompt to exude darkness.
Bumbry’s ground-breaking performances include Venus in Wagner’s production, “Tannehaueser.” Critics anointed her “Die Schwarze Venus,” translated the Black Venus. The moniker catapulted Bumbry to operatic success.
In 2009, President Barack Obama selected Bumbry for the Kennedy Center Honors. The fruit of her labor afforded ownership of the world’s second Lamborghini off the production line, a reward she attributes to the pursuit of Godly purpose.
South Florida welcomed the 83-year-old Black history maker Feb. 9-16 for a series of collaborative events hosted by the Venetian Arts Society. Artistic and executive director William Riddle invited Bumbry to honor her classical opera contributions. The Miami Times conversed with Bumbry on Monday, Feb. 10th. With a warm smile and glow as resilient as her preserved voice, Bumbry shared how a little Black girl from St. Louis relocated to white Europe pre-civil rights and created her own artistic space.
“I really felt in the past that I had not done enough for the Black community besides performing on a high level. I had not shown them that they can get where I have gotten and beyond,” said Bumbry. “I needed to be more attentive to the Black person, to show them it’s not only Beyonce, James Brown or Aretha Franklin who I dearly love, it’s also about putting yourself on a higher level and not being satisfied with getting by.”
During the pre-civil rights era, Bumbry sought to have more in life. Her family provided the finest training. Blanche Wormley, her family’s church choir director, made the initial overture to Bumbry’s mother.
“I think your baby has a beautiful voice, you should let me train her,” said Wormley who wasn’t concerned about performance, but recognized that a voice needed to be nurtured.
Bumbry’s regimen commenced with piano lessons from ages 7 to 15. She then began formal vocal training at Sumner High School, the oldest African-American high school west of the Mississippi.
At the urging of Kenneth Brown Billups, the school’s a’cappella choral director, Bumbry trained five days per week with a private lesson each Saturday. Bumbry credits Billups as the vocal coach who best prepared her voice.
“It was a sacrifice to take piano lessons five days a week. My parents had three kids to support,” said Bumbry. My father was a freight handler for the St. Louis railroad, but knew God gave me something special.”
Bumbry was smitten when she heard Johann Sebastian Bach’s, “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring.” When she was 11, she attended a performance of Marian Anderson. The Black, contralto performed “Love’s Messenger,” and immediately influenced Bumbry to pursue classical voice.
“Marian came onto the stage in a very grand manner. Not haughty but grand,” said Bumbry. “She was this long slender woman with a train running behind her and had these beautiful, long red fingernails, which I wear even today… she was not talking or singing down to us; she was communicating on the same level.”
Bumbry knew to get where she wanted and where Anderson had been, she had to move to Europe. Following advanced study at Boston University, Northwestern University and Music Academy of the West, Bumbry departed America.
“When I left for Europe in 1959, I wasn’t thinking about being the only Black, long distance or leaving home,” said Bumbry. “I was thinking about the development of my opera voice in opera. Even the whites had to go to Europe to make their start.”
A $100 scholarship allowed Bumbry to establish a line of credit with American Express. A paltry amount by today’s measure, but according to Bumbry, “It went a long way.” She learned to manage both money and race relations abroad.
“Discrimination was nothing new to me. I experienced it in America shopping at age 12 with my mother when we were unable to use public toilets,” said Bumbry. “I lived in a Black world with a Black school, friends and my church. It felt comfortable like a warm cloak. But then you get outside and realize it is a different world.”
A Black had never performed in the Paris Opera House, but in September 1959, Bumbry auditioned for the Aida role. She had previously been trained for the role of Amneris by Lotte Lehmann in Santa Barbara.
“The opera director wanted me to sing for the role Aida, the Black and Ethiopian princess. Amneris was the lighter-skinned role, but both were Africans,” said Bumbry.
Bumbry debuted in London at the age of 22 followed by Switzerland, Italy, France and Germany. On many occasions she was the first Black opera singer to perform.
The retired stage performer currently resides in Vienna, Austria and dedicates herself to teaching master classes.
“In today’s world, there are so many more opera and concert singers. The competition is great, so just the joy of singing is not enough. One must train,” said Bumbry. “As Black people, we must realize there is a larger world out there to take advantage of. You never know from day to day what can happen for you, not against you, but what can happen for you.”