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In the opera world, Grace Bumbry is considered a master of her craft as one of the leading mezzo-soprano vocalists in the world. Today is the St. Louis, Mo. native’s birthday.

Bumbry was born in 1937. Her parents exposed her to the likes of Marian Anderson, who would be an early inspiration. At 16, Bumbry won a contest to enter a local music conservatory, but was denied entry due to her race. The contest promoters, looking to avert controversy, made arrangements for Bumbry to attend Boston University but it was after transferring to Northwestern University, she blossomed. While in Illinois, she studied with opera star and soloist Lotte Lehmann.

In 1961 at the age of 24, Bumbry became in an international sensation after appearing as the first Black opera singer to perform in Bayreuth, Germany with the grandson of composer, Richard Wagner. Although the conservative opera audience and press balked at her inclusion in the production, her performance was so mind-blowing that she was dubbed “The Black Venus.”

The following year, Bumbry was invited to sing at the White House, becoming the first Black opera singer to perform there. This lead to more performances throughout the ’60’s and ’70’s. Bumbry’s controversial switch to soprano in the latter decade divided some critics and observers who questioned if she truly commanded the range to sing at that level.

However, Bumbry brushed aside the talk and continued to perform into the ’90’s, with her last performance taking place in 1997.

From there, Bumbry taught voice and served as a judge in various competitions, and amassed a number of honors, including inclusion into the Kennedy Center Honors in 2009.

PHOTO: Public Domain

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