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The OTHER Black ‘Carmen’ Film

The OTHER Black 'Carmen' Film

And NO, I’m NOT talking about Beyonce in Carmen: A Hip-Hopera.

I’m talking about Grace Bumbry who could sing rings around Beyonce (And don’t get upset, That’s a fact).

So, following up on my piece yesterday about Carmen Jones coming out later this year on blu-ray DVD, it got me to thinking about Bumbry, who starred in a film version of George Bizet’s original French opera back in 1967.

A St. Louis native Bumbry, who, now at age 76, is still very active and living in Austria, was, in the 60’s and 70’s, one of the truly great operatic mezzo sopranos of her day. And like her peer Leontyne Price, broke down many barriers. 

For example, back in the early 60’s, she sang the role of Venus in Wagner’s opera Tannhauser at Bayreuth (the home and shrine to Wagner which holds an opera festival, performing only his operas every summer). It was, to put it mildly, a scandal. How dare a black woman play the role of Venus, to which the director of the production said: “Show me anyone who can sing it better and I’ll hire her”. 

No one did.

Then, in ’67, Bumbry played the role of Carmen for a film version directed by the legendary conductor Herbert Von Karajan, with the Vienna Philharmonic, who, at this time, started making films of his opera and symphony performances. 

Once again there was shock and horror that a black woman played the role of Carmen. Dorothy Dandridge (whose singing voice in Carmen Jones was dubbed by a young 18 year old white girl named  Marilyn Horne, who also went on the become one of greatest opera singers ever) was one thing; but this was something else. And, once again, everyone kept heir mouths shut when they heard Bumbry sing. 

Interestingly, Karajan, with the same Vienna PO, three years earlier, recorded for RCA a performance of Carmen with Leontyne Price, which is considered one of the greatest recordings ever of the work.

So why didn’t Karajan use Price for the film version? I suspect most likely because Price was too majestic, too regal a figure to convincingly play…how shall we say…a loose woman such as Carmen, on the screen. Bumbry however had an earthly sensuality that was perfect for the role.

Just take a look: 

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I use these 3 films in one of my classes: (1) Carmen Jones (2) Carmen A Hip-Hopera and (3) Karmen Geï, Senegalese director Joseph Gaï Ramaka's 2001 remake of the classic starring Djeïnaba Diop Gaï. A discussion that compares and contrasts the different interpretations of the opera really helps to bring out nuances and issues that might be missed by talking about any one of these films in isolation. It's really interesting to hear how the films are understood and received by different 'audiences'.


Looking at the biographies of the two, are you sure that Krajan never asked Price, Sergio? I see that Price turned Krajan down on at least one occasion that he asked her. I'm just saying that perhaps, she turned him down. Even though the two divas are sopranos, Price was considered more of a coloratura/soprano while Bumbry is a mezzo-soprano/soprano. Many conductors seemed to want Price to sing the likes of Verdi and Puccini, while perhaps conductors wanted Bumbry performing other types of roles? Just a guess, though. As much as I like Renee Fleming, she can't compare to these two, though. I'd even take a recording of them singing the phone book.


I love my Afro Opera Divas! I remember reading an article on Ms. Bumbry in the NYTimes years ago and had to look up as many of her performances as I could on You Tube (the article mentioned one performance she did decades ago on Canadian TV that got me started). She is audacious and full of fire, a perfect Carmen. Leontyne Price will always be my number one but Grace Bumbry, Denyce Graves and Wilhelmenia Fernandez are also on my favorites list.

I've also been meaning to see the South African version for quite some years now as I've heard that Carmen has a powerful voice.


There's also two African Carmen's – one Senegalese ("Karmen Gei", 2001) and one South African (" U-Carmen eKhayelitsha", 2005).


Bravada! Grace Brumby is beautiful and has a gorgeous voice to boot. The only present day diva to do this justice is Denyce Graves!!! And Brumby does favor Nichelle Nichols.


Thanks for this clip. Brumby really knows how to control a stage. Respect for the performance. She looks a lot like Nichelle Nichols.

Adam Scott Thompson

I nearly lost all respect for Robert Townsend after the "hip-hopera" (it's as hard to type as it is to utter), but… he did make "Hollywood Shuffle."


You Should be SLAPPED!! How can you fix your funky fingers to keyboard to compare Beyonce and Grace Bumbry? Grace is a Classically trained vocalist. Beyonce is an entertainer. When will you Braindead Africans use your brains to THINK instead of FEELing tribalism. Madonna can't sing either, but she's an entertainer.


She slayed it. Damn.


Nice post, could've done w/o the Beyonce dig/hate, but whatever…beautiful voice & backstory. Can't help but notice the similarities between Bumbry & Nichelle Nichols in style & sexy…

D. Grays


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