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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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