Opera star and Bienen alum Grace Bumbry dies at 86

Joanna Hou, Campus Editor

Grace Bumbry (Bienen ’58), who helped pave the way for Black artists in opera, died Sunday at age 86, according to a Tuesday news release from the Bienen School of Music. 

Following her graduation from Northwestern, Bumbry debuted as Amneris in “Aida” at the Paris Opera in 1960. 

In 1961, Bumbry was cast as Venus in a new production of “Tannhäuser.” She became the first Black artist to perform at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, and received about 200 protest letters over her race. Her performance, however, garnered global media attention and praise. 

The next year, she performed for President John F. Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Kennedy at the White House, becoming the first Black opera artist to perform there. Though she started as a mezzo-soprano, she later learned to also perform in the soprano range, according to the release. 

During her career, Bumbry performed in almost every major opera house in the world, the release said. Her last full opera performance took place in 1986 at the New York Metropolitan Opera. In a full circle moment, she once again played the role of Amneris. 

In 2009, President Barack Obama awarded Bumbry with the Kennedy Center Award for the Arts, which recognizes individuals who made significant contributions to American culture through performing arts. 

“True to her name, Grace allowed her voice to shine through and touch all those within its range,” Obama said in his award speech. “With a pitch and presence like no other, she became a global sensation, moving audiences at the great opera houses of the world.” 

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