Mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry, the first African-American opera singer to have an international career, died on May 7 at a hospital in Vienna, where she was hospitalized; she was 86. She suffered a stroke last October 20 and was hospitalized in New York. She had recently been hospitalized after suffering an acute ischemic stroke caused by a fall.
She was born in St. Louis and won a contest on a local radio station at age 17 to win a scholarship to the St. Louis Conservatory of Music, but was denied admission due to racial discrimination and enrolled at Boston University School of Music. She then moved to Northwestern University in Chicago, where he began serious study of vocal music after meeting German soprano Lotte Lehmann.
In 1958, she won the National Council Auditions for the Metropolitan Opera. After winning numerous awards and opportunities to study abroad, she studied in Paris and Rome, and made his operatic debut in 1960 singing Amneris in “Aida” at the Opéra National de Paris.
In 1961, at the age of 24, she was invited by Wieland Wagner, who presided over the Bayreuth Festival, to perform as the first black singer. She sang Venus in “Tannhäuser” conducted by Wolfgang Sawallisch and began her international career with a rousing ovation that included 42 curtain calls and applause that lasted for 30 minutes.
She went on to make a succession of debuts at prominent opera houses, including the Royal Opera in London in 1963, La Scala in Milan in 1964, the Vienna State Opera in 1964, and the Metropolitan Opera in 1965. She also sang Carmen under the baton of Herbert von Karajan in an opera film recorded at the Salzburg Festival in 1967.
She has a rich, lustrous, glorious voice with a wide range and has sung many soprano roles with great success. In 1970s, she sung Salome at the Royal Opera, followed by Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera.
In the 1980s, she again focused on her career as a mezzo-soprano, retiring from opera in 1997 to sing Clytemnestra in “Salome” at the Opera de Lyon, but in 2013 she was invited by the Vienna State Opera to play the Countess in Tchaikovsky’s “Queen of Spades”.
She continues to run as a leading black singer and has many famous recordings., including “Carmen” with Karajan, “Macbeth” with Sawallisch, and “Don Carlo” with James Levine, and has received many awards, including the Kennedy Center Honor Award and the French Order of Arts and Letters.