Pioneering African-American opera singer Grace Bumbry dies aged 86

Grace Bumbry performing in March 1982
Grace Bumbry performing in March 1982 Copyright Copyright The AP
Copyright Copyright The AP
By Saskia O'Donoghue
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Grace Bumbry was the first Black singer to perform at Germany's Bayreuth festival and had a career spanning more than three decades.


Pioneering opera singer Grace Bumbry has died at the age of 86. The American-born mezzo-soprano spent more than three decades performing at top venues across the world - and was the first ever Black singer to perform at Germany's Bayreuth Festival.

Bumbry died on Sunday 7 May at a hospital in Vienna, Austria, according to her publicist. She had suffered a stroke last October while on a flight to New York to attend her induction into Opera America's Opera Hall of Fame. She was treated in New York City and returned to Vienna in December, spending the last months of her life in and out of medical facilities.

Born to a railroad porter and schoolteacher in St. Louis, Missouri in 1937, the singer won a talent contest at age 17 sponsored by radio station KMOX which included a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music. However, she was denied admission to the institution because she was Black.

She fought against that prejudice throughout her career, placing among the winners of the 1958 Met National Council Auditions and made a recital debut in Paris the same year, then going on to perform at the Paris Opéra in 1960 as Amneris in ‘Aida’.

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Bumbry appears in her dressing room at London's Royal Opera House in 1968 fter the opening performance of 'Aida'Copyright 2023 The AP

Black Venus

The next year, she was cast by Wieland Wagner to sing the part of Venus in a production of ‘Tannhäuser’ at the Richard Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. Bumbry's casting as a Black woman resulted in 200 protest letters to the festival but her performance was a success and earned her the nickname ‘Black Venus’.

Reminiscing in 2021, she told St. Louis Magazine: “I remember being discriminated against in the United States, so why should it be any different in Germany? I knew that I had to get up there and show them what I’m about. When we were in high school, our teachers - and my parents, of course - taught us that you are no different than anybody else. You are not better than anybody, and you are not lesser than anybody. You have to do your best all the time”.

Following her Bayreuth performance, Bumbry was invited by then first lady Jacqueline Kennedy to sing at a White House state dinner and her career went from strength to strength, making debuts in the early 1960s at Carnegie Hall, London’s Royal Opera House and the Teatro alla Scala in Milan.

In 1965, she appeared at the Met in New York as Princess Eboli in Verdi's ‘Don Carlo’ - and went on to perform a total of 216 times with the company.

Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, paid tribute after learning of her death, saying: “Opera will be forever in her debt for the pioneering role she played as one of the first great African American stars”. 

Explaining that he had first seen her perform in 1967 as a 13-year-old, he added: “Hearing and seeing her giving a tour-de-force performance made a big impression on my teenage soul and was an early influence on my decision to pursue a career in the arts, just as she influenced generations of younger singers of all ethnicities to follow in her formidable footsteps”.

Bumbry’s later career

Although Grace Bumbry made her last operatic appearance as Klytämnestra in ‘Elektra’ by R. Strauss in Lyon, France, in 1997, she worked for many more years as a singing teacher and judge of international competitions. 

She also returned to the concert stage, giving a series of recitals in 2001 and 2002 in Paris, London and New York and, in 2010, she performed in Scott Joplin's ‘Treemonisha' opera at the Theatre du Chatelet in Paris. Bumbry also returned to the Vienna State Opera as the Countess in Tchaikovsky's ‘The Queen of Spades' in 2013.

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Bumbry honoured at the Kennedy Centre in 2009Copyright AP2009

Among numerous honours, she was inducted into the St. Louis Walk of Fame, was named Commandeur des Arts et Lettres by the French government and was among those honoured for her contribution to the performing arts during the 2009 Kennedy Center Honours, alongside Bruce Springsteen, Mel Brooks and Robert De Niro.

Bumbry was married to Polish tenor Erwin Jaeckel until their divorce in 1972 and she leaves no children. Her publicist says memorials are being planned for the trailblazing star in her adopted home of Vienna and in New York.

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