Grace Bumbry, an acclaimed mezzo-soprano, has died at age 86.
According to her publicist David Lee Brewer, she passed away on Sunday (May 7) at Evangelisches Krankenhaus, a hospital in Vienna. She previously suffered a stroke in October 2022 and received treatment at various facilities prior to her death. Bumbry was the first Black soprano to sing at Germany’s Bayreuth Festival and was a recipient of the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009.
Born in 1937 in St. Louis, Bumbry’s talent as a singer was first realized as a teen, as she won a local radio talent competition that included a scholarship to the St. Louis Institute of Music. However, she was denied due to racial prejudice, but did not let those barriers deter her; she went on to study music at Boston University College of Fine Arts, Northwestern, and at the Music Academy of the West.
Bumbry’s career took off in the 1960s, as she sang at the White House, Carnegie Hall, London’s Royal Opera, and Teatro alla Scala in Milan. That decade, she also made her debut at the Met, where she would perform over 200 times and became one of the most acclaimed opera singers to grace its stage during her decades-long tenure.
Peter Gelb, general manager of the Met, spoke glowingly of Bumbry’s impact, legacy, and talent, deeming her “one of the first great African American stars.” He added that the Opera Hall of Fame inductee played a “pioneering role” and that the genre of opera will be “forever in her debt.”
“Grace Bumbry was the first opera star I ever heard in person in 1967 when she was singing the role of Carmen at the Met and I was a 13-year-old sitting with my parents in Rudolf Bing’s box,” he said. “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.”