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Grace Bumbry receives Kennedy Center Honor

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: The Kennedy Center awards have been handed out and the concert celebrating the gifts the award winners have given to America will be shown in a two-hour prime-time special at 8 p.m., Dec. 29 on CBS.

One of Sumner High School's gifts to the world will stand center stage with rock star Bruce Springsteen; actor Robert De Niro; comedian, writer and producer Mel Brooks; and jazz pianist Dave Brubeck.

Grace Bumbry, 72, the international opera diva, will be honored with those four luminaries at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6 at the 32nd annual National Awards of the Arts. CBS will televise the gala to millions on the evening of Dec. 29.

"I believe that it's the most important award in America for artists," Bumbry, a St. Louis native, said in a telephone interview last week from her home in Salzburg, Austria. "The Kennedy Center National Award shows you have been recognized for what you have done for the arts and for America."

She is being feted for singing leading roles in the world's finest opera houses over her remarkably long career of 56 years, starting in 1953 with recitals in St. Louis at Sheldon Memorial and Union Memorial.

Bumbry began her opera career at the top in 1960. At the age of 23, she sang Amneris in Verdi's "Aida." In 1997, she took her final opera curtain call as Klytaemnestra, in Richard Strauss' "Elektra" in Lyon, France. She began as a mezzo, and then took on the higher range roles of a soprano until switching back to mezzo in later years. She sang recitals as recently as two years ago but now concentrates on teaching voice.

Her most recent St. Louis stage appearance was in June 2004 not as a singer but as a master teacher before a public audience at Opera Theatre of St. Louis' John D. Levy Master Class series.

"She broke racial barriers, you have to give her credit for that," said Juanita Doggett, 91, retired principal of Sherman School in St. Louis and a Bumbry family friend.

Outside Sumner High's nurturing walls, at the age of 17, Bumbry was barred from one door to a vocal career. A Clayton after-school music conservatory slammed its door in her face, reneging on a promised $1,000 scholarship that she had won. Her race was the only reason.

A Career of Achievement

Bumbry's work ethic at the world's best opera houses propped stage doors open for other African-Americans including Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle and Vinson Cole.

On the phone, Bumbry's fabled bronze-toned voice revealed excitement about the Kennedy Center award: "I look forward to joining my predecessors, as well as those honorees seated this year, especially meeting Robert De Niro," she said. "I like the way he goes into depth in his roles."

Her magnetic stage presence won her strong reviews. A generation ago in Richard Strauss' "Salome" she performed its "Dance of the Seven Veils" wearing a flesh-tone bikini with precisely placed fake jewels. She twirled, her veils floated away, and the London audience seeming in unison raised their opera glasses. She has often said her dance's well-publicized "unveiling" broke records at the hall's opera glass rental concession.

Bumbry has been dramatic off stage, too. In her 20s and 30s, she swathed her perfectly coiffed hair in silk designer scarves, a la Jacqueline Kennedy, put on her shades and zoomed along European roads in her bright orange, low-slung Lamborghini.

Sharing Singers' Secrets

Now teaching fills her days. The day of the interview she had taught three singers. Students come to her Salzburg studio and twice a year to her sessions in Berlin. They come from Europe, Asia and America. She teaches in German, French, Italian and English. She dreams of adding master classes in Chicago, one of her favorite cities.

"Chicago has everything, as good as New York but Lake Michigan is right there. You don't have to get in all the traffic and go way out to Long Island to see the sea," she said.

For years her astute music students listened to her recordings before their first meetings. Now, her students have viewed many of her performances on Youtube.com, the Internet's largest video sharing site.

"I don't have to show them what I did, they already know," she said. "Sometimes they know more than I do about what I did at concerts that I've nearly forgotten. Youtube is great invention. Whoever thought of it was a genius. It's a great source."

The electronic age has been good for opera, she said. Today aspiring singers watch operas on their laptops any hour they chose. When she was a child she saw just two operas in movies: Camille Saint-Saens' "Samson and Delilah" starring Sophia Loren (with an opera singer voice dubbed in), and Verdi's "Aida."

"In 56 years of singing, I learned on my own what works," she said. "God was generous, he gave me a wide range, so I'm able to use my voice as a mezzo and a soprano. Any opera that I have sung gives me pleasure to teach," she said.

Teaching a role that she never sang is invigorating. "I enjoy following new avenues," she said.

Like all her own teachers, she warns her students about overusing their voices. Damage shortens many singers' careers.

"First learn how to sing properly; don't push your voice to the 'nth' degree," she tells students. "Sing on the instrument. You have to go back to the hygiene of the voice and care for the voice. It's not just the vocal cords. It's also the muscles around the cords, the whole body and the whole brain. Singing starts in the brain."

A singer's whole body, including the brain, needs rest after a big role, sometimes for two weeks, sometimes for two months, she said. Some students have come to her with voices that have nearly been ruined.

"Then, you have to start very slowly with patience, and care" she said. "Go back to what you'd call Voice Lesson 101. "It's even more difficult sometimes for them to build confidence again."

In addition to her own hard-won wisdom, she shares her own teachers' tips. Sumner High School's legendary music teacher Kenneth Billups began teaching her when she was 13.

"I use Ken Billups exercises that I wrote down. Sure, I do," she said. "He was my first and best teacher."

KMOX Radio 1950s contest host Curt Ray accompanied her to the CBS Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts television show that she won. He warned her about promoters and producers.

"Curt Ray said, 'Grace you have to know when to say no, others can't, won't judge what is good for you'," she said.

Stay out of theater politics, she tells students. She always left the opera house after the final curtain call. She never socialized. Some may have thought her aloof but avoiding the political fray served her career well, she said.

"I had a reputation that I was not easy to work with," she said. "But that was because they knew I was very professional, very correct and always, always successful."

She knows of no opera house that did not hire her because of her race, she said.

"If they didn't hire me, I did not know about it," she said. "They engaged me because they knew I was always successful. Racism existed. Still exists. Some people never change. Excellence is the answer" (to overcoming racist opera casting).

Even though she lived out of suitcases for decades, Switzerland was her home from her mid-20s until she moved to Salzburg seven years ago. She loves its beauty in the foothills of the Alps.

A St. Louis Beginning

Grace Ann Bumbry grew up in the Ville neighborhood of north St. Louis, at 1703 Goode Ave., now called Annie Malone Drive. Her mother, Melzia Walker Bumbry, had taught grade school and dreamed of a singing career. After she married Benjamin James Bumbry, a freight handler for the Cotton Belt Railroad, she stayed home to raise her two sons and daughter.

From the age of 6 or so, Grace went with her parents and brothers to choir practice at Union Memorial Methodist Church, at Leffingwell and Pine streets — now the site of the Wells Fargo campus. When Bumbry was 11, she officially joined the choir. Union Memorial's choir sang classical sacred music: anthems, spiritual and hymns, not Gospel, Bumbry said.

"Grace had a gift from day one. I don't know if she realized it, but I realized it," said Dorothy Williams of St. Louis, a longtime Union Memorial's chorister. Bumbry sang solos at church as a teenager.

"She could make those hymns move," said Doggett.

At Sumner High School, music teacher Kenneth Billups put her in his choir, gave her voice lessons and solo roles. Today, a street just a few hundred feet west of her childhood home is named for him.

She was 17 when KMOX radio's "The Teen O'clock Show" held a weekly singing contest. With Billups' encouragement, she entered.

"Over 500 young singers competed over 20 weeks. I was the ultimate winner," she said last week.

The show dangled before listeners the three-part top prize: a trip to New York, a $1,000 government bond and $1,000 in tuition at the St. Louis Institute of Music. It was a small, after-school program for teens in Clayton. The conservatory's trustees refused to fulfill its promised scholarship when they found that the winning voice belonged to an African American. The trustees offered her off-site private instruction. Her mother declined.

Public schools were not integrated — an all-black St. Louis Country grade school was a few blocks from the music conservatory — but some educational programs and the Catholic Archdiocesan Schools had been integrated in the 1940s.

"St. Louis was a little slow in receiving Grace," said Doggett, the former Sherman School principal.

The radio contest host Ray and KMOX executives networked with one of CBS's biggest stars, Arthur Godfrey. His weekly Talent Scouts television show was the "American Idol" of its day. Ray and Bumbry went to New York, where she sang "O Don Fatale" from Verdi's "Don Carlo." The studio audience voted with its applause. The studio's applause meter quivered to its top reading, and she won. That very week the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that public schools could not be segregated on racial lines.

After her win, Boston University offered her a music scholarship. She took it and after a year transferred to Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. There she met opera singer Lotte Lehmann, who took Bumbry under her wing. She spent the next three years at the Music Academy of Santa Barbara, which Lehmann had co-founded. Lehmann gave her private lessons. A few years later, Bumbry was one the two winners of the New York Metropolitan Opera Auditions.

The Met doesn't offer young singers jobs immediately. "There were no American opera companies with year-long seasons then," she said. She left for Europe to sing. At 23, she made her concert debut in London in 1959.

The World Stage

She didn't apprentice and even skipped supporting roles. An audition won her an opera debut in Verdi's "Aida" at the spectacular Paris Opera House. The French called her a star and, even before Paris, the Basel Opera House in Switzerland signed her to sing for several seasons.

Word of her vocal gifts reached the grandson of composer Richard Wagner. Wieland Wagner cast her as the sexy Venus in "Tannhauser" at the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth. No black singer had ever appeared there and some festival regulars had racist responses. Wagner said her voice was what mattered.

He told the reporters that his grandfather would have loved her voice. Bumbry was called back on stage to make 42 curtain calls that opening night. At the festival's end she was awarded its Wagner Medal.

Her first major U.S. engagement was heady, too. Shortly after Bumbry's 25th birthday, Jacqueline Kennedy invited her to sing at the White House after a state dinner. The St. Louisan dined with guests before her performance though opera singers never eat first. She politely nibbled her first course, and a bit of dessert, she told Time magazine that week.

Bumbry's Repertoire

She sang "O Don Fatale" from Verdi's "Don Carlo" on the Arthur Godfrey Talent Scout show, at a state dinner at the Kennedy White House and her first St. Louis Symphony concert.

In her first major concert with the St. Louis Symphony at the Kiel Opera House Oct. 20, 1962, and under the baton of SLSO Music Director Eleazar De Carvalho she also sang

  • "Adieu, forets" from Tchaikovsky "The Maid of Orleans"
  • "Voi lo sapete" from Mascagni "Cavalleria Rusticana"
  • "Dich, teure Halle" from Wagner "Tannhauser"

Her favorite role was the title role of "Norma," a role she never sang enough of, she said.
Among the mezzo and soprano roles she sang are the title roles in "Carmen," "Salome," "Gioconda," "Aida," "Tosca," "Medea," Bess (in the Metropolitan Opera's very late premiere of the then 50-year-old "Porgy and Bess").

Other roles included Eboli in "Don Carlo," Kundry in "Parsifal," Santuzza in "Cavalleria rusticana," Elvira in "Ernani," Ortrud in "Lohengrin," Elisabeth in "Tannhauser," Dalila in "Samson et Dalila," Leonora in "Il trovatore."

Sol Hurok, a classical music producer, organized a recital concert tour of America for her. St. Louis' Kiel Opera House downtown was one stop. Her family and many friends attended her St. Louis debut.

"We tried to go to all her concerts," said Clementine Patton who remembers going to Kiel. "They always were exciting. We were, we are, so proud of Grace."

She was soon back in St. Louis as the featured guest in the 1962 St. Louis Symphony season opening concert. (Her selections are printed on the right.) This writer — then a teenager — was in the audience and remembers a much larger black audience than usual at the Symphony as well as the joy in the sustained standing ovation.

"I remember that concert with (symphony music director Eleazar) De Carvalho," Bumbry said in the interview. She had been pleased to sing among so many friends. That year Bumbry married Erwin Andreas Jaeckel, a Polish singer and her colleague at the Basel Opera. The marriage lasted a decade.

Shortly after Bumbry's marriage, Washington University music professor Leigh Gerdine and other St. Louis opera lovers who regularly produced the August Opera Festival under the direction of Edwynne Murphy brought Bumbry home to appear in a full opera. The production of Mascagni's "Cavalleria Rusticana" was built around the couple.

"They though it shameful, immoral that she'd not had a chance to sing opera here when she had had all that success in Germany" recalled Diane McCullough of South St. Louis who had a solo role in "Cavalleria." "The production was one of the highlights of my life, being that close to a voice of that greatness."

Twenty years later when McCullough sang in the chorus of the National Theater of Mannheim, Germany, the diva recognized McCullough, asked her name and embraced her warmly.

"Amazing, 20 years later and I was in an Egyptian costume," said McCullough, a retired singer and music teacher. "She is a warm, lovely person."

In 1965, Bumbry made her New York Metropolitan Opera debut in Verdi's "Don Carlos." Over the years, she gave more than 200 performances at the Met. Dorothy Williams of St. Louis travelled to New York a couple times in the 1960s to see her friend, first in "Aida." Williams said, "It was very exciting."

Bumbry sang in virtually every major opera house in Europe, South America and Japan. In 1991, she even "opened" Paris' new Opera Bastille on its inaugural night, singing Cassandra in Hector Berlioz's "Les Troyens."

Of all her roles, she best loves Bellini's "Norma," which she debuted in 1977 at the open air theater in Martina Franca, Italy. "I never sang it enough," she told the Beacon.

St. Louis Applauds

Bumbry returned to St. Louis to sing several more times with the Symphony in 1979 and 1980. She also appeared at the Saint Louis Conservatory and School for the Arts (CASA).

"I presented her in 1980, a program of art songs," James N. Cain, former CASA vice president said Tuesday with a copy of his program at hand. "In the program we added a lot about her St. Louis childhood and Ken Billups."

That evening many in the audience murmured about the sense of justice in the standing ovation from the crowded 1,115-seat art deco hall.

CASA had been formed from the merger of the old Community Music School and the St Louis Institute of Music, the one that slammed its doors on Bumbry a quarter of a century earlier. Cain, who had worked for two decades at the St. Louis Symphony, knew the shame of the old conservatory's leadership and chose Bumbry to be one of the earliest singers on his popular recital series.

Bumbry holds four honorary doctorate degrees, three from Missouri schools: Saint Louis University, University of Missouri at St. Louis and Rockhurst College in Kansas City.

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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