happened to be the birthday of the great operatic mezzo soprano Grace Bumbry
(born January 4, 1937), I thought it would be fitting to give another look at a
piece I originally wrote a year and half
ago about her, and one of her most legendary roles.
A St. Louis
native Bumbry, who, now at age 78, 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.
back in the early 60’s, she was cast in the role of Venus in Richard Wagner’s
opera “Tannhauser,” at Bayreuth in Germany (the opera house and shrine to Wagner, which holds an
opera festival, performing only his operas, every summer) by his grandson
It was, to
put it mildly, a scandal. How dare a black woman play the role of Venus, to
which Wieland, who directed the stage production, said: “Show me anyone who can sing it better and I’ll hire her.”
No one did.
Then, in 1967,
Bumbry played the role of Carmen for a film version of George Bizet’s opera, directed by the legendary
conductor Herbert Von Karajan, with the Vienna Philharmonic, who, around 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, in the film “Carmen Jones” (whose singing voice was
dubbed by an 18 year old white girl named Marilyn Horne, who also went on to become one of greatest opera singers
ever) was one thing; but this was something else. And, once again, everyone
kept their mouths shut when they heard Bumbry sing.
Karajan, three years earlier, with the same Vienna PO, recorded a
performance of “Carmen” for RCA, with Leontyne Price, which is considered one of the
greatest recordings ever of the work.
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 woman of loose moral standards like Carmen, on the screen. Bumbry, however had an earthly
sensuality that was perfect for the role.
Just take a