Grace Bumbry - Later Career

Later Career

In the 1970s, Bumbry—having recorded many soprano arias—began taking on more soprano roles. Her first unmistakably soprano role was Salome in 1970 at Covent Garden (both Santuzza and Lady Macbeth, which she had previously sung, can be considered 'transition' roles between mezzo and soprano). In 1971, she debuted as Tosca at the Metropolitan Opera (a performance that also marked James Levine's house debut as conductor). She also took on more unusual roles, such as Janáček's Jenůfa (in Italian) at La Scala in 1974 (with Magda Olivero as the Kostelnička), Dukas's Ariane et Barbe-bleue in Paris in 1975, and Sélika in Meyerbeer's L'Africaine at Covent Garden in 1978 (opposite Plácido Domingo as Vasco da Gama). Because of her full, dramatic soprano sound, she also began assuming such roles as Norma, Medea, Abigaille and Gioconda—roles not coincidentally associated with Maria Callas. She first sang Norma in 1977 in Martina Franca, Italy; the following year, she sang both Norma and Adalgisa in the same production at Covent Garden: first as the younger priestess opposite Montserrat Caballé as Norma; later, as Norma, with Josephine Veasey as Adalgisa.

As an interpreter of lieder she often performed with the German pianist Sebastian Peschko.

Other noted soprano roles in her career have included: Cassandre, Chimène (in Le Cid), Elisabeth (in Tannhäuser), Elvira (in Ernani), Leonora (both Il trovatore and La forza del destino), Aida, Turandot and Bess. Other major mezzo-soprano roles in her repertory included: Dalila, Didon (in Les Troyens), Massenet's Hérodiade, Adalgisa, Ulrica, Azucena, Orfeo (her only trouser role), Poppea and Baba the Turk.

In 1991, at the opening of the new Opéra Bastille, she appeared as Cassandre, with Shirley Verrett as Didon. Because of a strike at the opera, Verrett was unable to perform at the re-scheduled last performance (this incident is recounted in Verrett's autobiography), and Bumbry sang both Cassandre and Didon in the same evening.

In the 1990s, she also founded and toured with her Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, a group devoted to preserving and performing traditional Negro spirituals. Her last operatic appearance was as Klytämnestra in Richard Strauss's Elektra in Lyon in 1997. She has since devoted herself to teaching and judging international competitions; and to the concert stage, giving a series of recitals in 2001 and 2002 in honor of her teacher, Lotte Lehmann, including in Paris (Théâtre du Châtelet), London (Wigmore Hall) and New York (Alice Tully Hall). A DVD of the Paris recital was later issued by TDK.

Her advice to young singers is: "To strive for excellence, that's the answer. If you strive for excellence, that means that you are determined. You will find a way to get to your goal, even if it means having to turn down some really great offers. You have to live with that, as you have to live with yourself."

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