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American soprano and mezzo Grace Melzia Bumbry was born in St Louis, Missouri on 4 January 1937 into a modest, religious, musical family. She studied at the Boston University College of Fine Arts, then Northwestern University and then with Lotte Lehmann at the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California.
She was joint winner of the 1958 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, which led to the start of her international career, with a recital in Paris, and then the role of Amneris at Paris Opéra. She joined Basel Opera, and then sang Venus in Tannhäuser at Bayreuth, followed by debuts at Covent Garden, La Scala, New York Metropolitan Opera and Vienna State Opera.
During the 1970s she began to take on more soprano roles and more unusual roles in operas by Dukas, Janáček and Meyerbeer.
In the 1990s, returning to mezzo roles, she also founded and toured with the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, helping to preserve and perform Negro spirituals. (Her studies and early career had been very difficult because of her colour. She was refused her scholarship to the St Louis Institute of Music, for example, and there was outrage from white conservative opera-goers at her Bayreuth Tannhäuser role.)
She lived for many years Switzerland, then moved to Vienna. She suffered a stroke on a flight from Vienna to New York on 20 October 2022, which resulted in her health declining over the following months, and she died from related complications at a Vienna hospital on 7 May 2023, aged eighty-six.
Classical music news - May 2023 Obituaries - Our summary of those the classical music world has lost this month