Opera Star Grace Bumbry Returns to BU
Busy “retirement” for humanitarian, distinguished alum
Internationally celebrated mezzo soprano Grace Bumbry, whose voice — that sultry, wide-ranging instrument — has inhabited every major operatic heroine, from Santuzza to Dalila to Eboli to Salome, and an unforgettably seductive Carmen, returns to BU this week. The distinguished alumna will address students and the public at the Metcalf Ballroom tonight, as part of the Friends of the Libraries speaker series. An honorary UNESCO ambassador and one of the world’s leading vocal teachers, Bumbry (CFA’55) created the Black Musical Heritage Ensemble, and was one of the 2009 recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors. She will be in residence at the school of music through January 29.
Bumbry, 73, who retired from the stage in 1997, recently accepted the role of the mother in an upcoming Paris production of the Scott Joplin opera Treemonisha, the story of an African-American community’s emergence from slavery. The opera’s opening at the Théâtre du Châtelet will mark the 50th anniversary of Bumbry’s opera debut. She spoke to BU Today from her home in Salzburg, Austria.
BU Today: Congratulations on the Kennedy Center Honors. What have you been up to since then?
Bumbry: I’ve been teaching, of course. There’s nothing happening with my ensemble right now; they’re dormant. There’s always been a bit of confusion about whether I retired, or whether I’m doing just gospel, or whether I’m waiting to do that until I actually retired. I really don’t know. I thought I did retire, but I keep getting offers to do this and do that, and they don’t seem so terribly important, but in some respects they are.
Were there any offers you just couldn’t refuse?
I’ve accepted the role of the mother in the Scott Joplin opera Treemonisha. It’s at Châtelet in Paris, where I made my operatic debut in 1960. I chose to do it because the content of this piece has to do with the education of blacks from that period. For me it has more value than Porgy and Bess, and that’s had so much exposure. Why not let Treemonisha have the same kind of exposure? I’ve just begun learning it. Rehearsals start in March; you don’t know what to expect with directors with quote-unquote brilliant careers. They didn’t divulge what their ideas were, but they kept insisting I do this role — I didn’t immediately accept it.
You’re sought after as a teacher by singers around the world. Tell us a little bit about your teaching.
My last student left at seven this morning. My students come from all parts of the world, from Germany, France, Belgium, Korea, Japan, America, and here in Austria. I keep very busy. I have about 14 of them. Many are already performing, and they come when they have the opportunity, to prepare for an audition or a competition. I have a Russian girl, a student who is now in America auditioning for agents.
Are your students all sopranos?
Oh, no. I have baritones, tenors, even a couple of basses. I don’t believe that one should specialize in any one vocal category, though some teachers do that. I’ve had a lot of success with men, especially baritones. The basses are very difficult. It’s like a coloratura; both are extreme ends of the spectrum. One has to listen very carefully, know what the rules are, and apply them.
How did you come to settle in Salzburg?
I always loved Salzburg when I sang here in the summers of the 1960s and ’70s. I lived in Switzerland for almost 40 years, and then I tried living back in the States. But then my brother died. My mother and father had already passed, so I decided to stay in Europe. And I remembered this lovely church here in Salzburg; now I sing at that church.
Are you in touch with friends from your years on the opera stage?
A great many of my friends have passed on. But I still have Martina Arroyo, the American soprano, in New York City, and I recently saw baritone Sherrill Milnes in Washington. He’s wonderful.
Forgive me, but I have to ask about the great story of your breaking a racial barrier in 1961, when Richard Wagner’s grandson cast you as Venus in a Bayreuth festival performance of Tannhauser and you got 42 curtain calls. How did it feel?
I’ve heard there were really 32 curtain calls, but somehow it grew to 42. It was an enormous success, and a wonderful feeling that my efforts were not in vain. Anytime you have a success it’s a great feeling.
Besides teaching, what do have planned for your stay in Boston?
Oh, my schedule is so chock-a-block full. I’ll be jet-lagged. I’m 73; I don’t go gallivanting around. I’ve got no time for anything except a little shopping. I must get my American products.
Let’s see, I need some Good Seasons Italian dressing — the kind in the packets. And Hanes pantyhose. And Aveeno makes this wonderful soap. And I need face makeup and powder by Fashion Fair.
The Friends of the Libraries of Boston University presents An Evening with Grace Bumbry at the George Sherman Union Metcalf Hall on Wednesday, January 27, at 6 p.m. Admission to the lecture and reception is free to Friends of the Libraries members and BU students, $25 for the general public. For more information, call 617-353-3697. Bumbry will give a master class with singers from the graduate voice degree programs and the Opera Institute, free and open to the public, on Thursday, January 28, from 6:30 to 9 p.m., in the College of Fine Arts Concert Hall, 855 Commonwealth Ave.
Susan Seligson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Comments