By Joel Kasow
France, 2 September 1997 - Operanet spoke to Grace Bumbry in Lyons
after she made her operatic farewell in a role she had never
previously sung. Looking and sounding considerably younger than many
of her colleagues, she admitted that Salomé was no
longer in her repertoire: "I'm a little bit too full these days."
Ms. Bumbry may be the last of a line of sopranos who has sung both the
leading soprano and mezzo roles in many operas: Aida, Norma,
Trovatore, Troyens, Tannhaüser, among others. Her outspoken
opinions give constant cause for reflection.
Operanet: You have just sung the last of three performances
as Klytemnestra in Elektra here in Lyons, and I have read that
this is your operatic farewell.
Grace Bumbry: That's my intention. People are doing their very best
to persuade me otherwise. There have been some very interesting
offers, but I really think that this is it because I have so many
other things to do. I have been appointed special advisor to UNESCO
for their slave route, I have the Grace Bumbry Black Musical Heritage
Ensemble, plus my private students, and then there is also my recital
and concert career.
Operanet: Was this a conscious decision that these
performances would be your last?
GB: No. As a matter of fact I had intended my farewell for
the year 2000, but as I was studying Klytemnestra it came to my mind
that this really would be a good moment to stop. Things were coming in
very fast for the ensemble, there's going to be a big tour, the thing
with UNESCO, and I just decided that I didn't have the time to do
everything and do it well. The key to my success has been striving for
excellence, and you can't achieve that if you're doing a wee bit of
this and a wee bit of that. I've done everything, I've sung all the
roles I wanted to sing, I've sung in all the major opera houses of the
world, I've all the accolades I want, so now's the time to stop...as
long as I continue to sing. I'm going to be singing concerts and
Operanet: What are some of the things you might do in
concert? Mahler, perhaps?
GB: Yes, excerpts from Gotterdämmerung, the
Immolation Scene, for example, Tristan und Isolde, Mozart and
Beethoven concert arias, Berlioz which I haven't done a lot of, like
the Nuits d'été which I've only done once or
twice. And as far as the voice is concerned, it's as fresh as ever.
Operanet: It was a hell of a lot fresher than the other two
ladies last night in Elektra(Eva Marton and Jeannine
Altmeyer), but we won't talk about that.
GB: No, we won't.
Operanet: Looking back, you've had an incredible operatic
life, starting with Lotte Lehmann, then the impetus when you sang
Venus under Wieland Wagner in Bayreuth, Carmen with von Karajan - what
would you single out as events that gave you the most pleasure?
GB: There was no one single thing. As you say, I started out
on such a high note that there was really no place to go but up, so it
was just a matter of continuing to sing all the roles you had to sing.
Operanet: You were very fortunate to have a privileged
relation with Lotte Lehmann. Are you now passing on that heritage to
GB: I'm trying. This is what I want to do.
Operanet: Are these private students or are you affiliated
with a conservatory?
GB: I'm affiliated with the Summer Academy of the Mozarteum
in Salzburg, and then I have six to a maximum of eight private
students on occasion, but usually six. And they come pretty much
wherever I am for any length of time, whether Lugano, or America or
France. I have one student who's here in Lyons at the opera house,
Operanet: Now that you're actively involved in teaching,
perhaps you can tell me where are the Verdian voices of today? I can
think of only one mezzo for the Verdi repertoire, Dolora Zajick. You
attend performances, you participate in them. Don't you wonder where
are the Aidas and Amnerises of today?
GB: I don't really go to performances, but from time to time
I do get to hear singers because they ask me to listen to them or
auditions are being held. A lot of singers are not being given a
chance for one reason or another - they may be the wrong race, they
may be too heavy or they don't fit into that particular manager's
scheme of things. The singers are there.
Operanet: Do you still think there's a racial problem?
GB: I do. Very definitely.
Operanet: I know there's a problem today because so many
stage directors are so concerned about how someone looks that if a
singer is on the large side, he or she may lose out on a lot of choice
contracts. But after you, Shirley Verrett and Leontyne Price, and
everyone else, surely we're beyond that now.
GB: But how many have you named? You can perhaps think of
five immediately, and there are far more than five of us. When I
auditioned for my chorus, I heard 450 singers and I was amazed at the
quality. And I thought that I was something special with my wide range
and all that stuff, but it seems there are far more of us than one can
remember or even bother to recognize or admit. It's a pity that we
don't think about the vocal quality. Singing is about singing, first
and foremost, but we live in an electronic age when everybody looks at
television, they have access to videos, etc., and you see these
wonderful looking people and you are sold by what you see, not only by
what you hear. It's our job now to try to slender ourselves down and
still keep the beauty of voice. I think there's a mistaken theory from
a lot of singers that in order to sing well and have a big voice, you
have to be big in size. It goes without saying that a cello certainly
has a different sound from a violin, but we have to find a middle road
because we are selling ourselves to the public. We are a product which
has to be as beautiful as possible, something that people will want to
see as well as hear.
Operanet: But people seem to forget that opera is about a
suspension of belief...
GB: It's about looks.
Operanet: But also about suspension of belief. To begin
with, it's sung and not spoken, so why can't we factor in this
GB: I agree with you 100 percent. But when you think about
the fact that you have Violetta dying of consumption and weighing 300
pounds, it's silly.
Operanet: But that no longer happens.
GB: But sometimes the voice you want is there.
Operanet: I don't know how many productions you've sung...
GB: (laughing) ...I don't sing Traviata...
Operanet: ...with stage directors of the modern school, like
Peter Sellars or Robert Wilson. Do you feel that they are beneficial
to opera? You've sung, for instance the Mussbach production of Rake's
Progress at Salzburg, and I know that Gérard Mortier thinks
this is the only way opera can and should be done, because then a
modern audience can relate to what they are seeing on stage.
GB: I don't agree. And I love Gérard. He and I would
have to have a few words about this, I'm afraid. But that Rake
was certainly different from what Wilson does. I cannot be fair in my
assessment of Bob Wilson because I have not really worked with him. We
were about to do Lohengrin in Zürich. Unfortunately my
mother had just passed away and I couldn't pull myself together, but I
did go to two or three rehearsals. What I saw in those rehearsals did
not lend itself to my way of doing opera. It's like being a machine.
You do certain movements and that's all. And in most cases, those
movements have nothing to do with what's being spoken or sung. For me
and the way I work - because I come from the point of view of the
words - I don't see how I could possibly have done his regie justice.
Operanet: Isn't it silly that we are talking about "the
Robert Wilson Lohengrin"?
GB: That tells you a lot: it says nothing about the quality
of the performance....yet, on the other hand, it does. Why not write
your own stories, your own opera, instead of taking someone else's
masterpiece and imposing your wishes upon that. I don't think opera
needs that kind of regie in order to make it interesting. In order to
make it interesting, you must have good singers.
Operanet: Thank you very much, Miss Bumbry, an opinion I
totally share. But then we come back to the question, where are the
GB: They're there, but you have to look hard, harder than
they are doing today, because people are taking the easy way out,
finding young singers who are hungry to be on the stage. They pay them
a pittance and make them do what the stage director wants. And they'll
do it because they have to.
Operanet: Have you ever been in a production where you kept
thinking to yourself, why am I here?
GB: Not often. I remember a production of Macbeth in
Frankfurt some years ago. I'm sure today it would seem like it was
just a walk around the park, but I was just appalled. In the opening
scene, Lady Macbeth was in bed with three men, and then she got up and
was wearing leather trousers.
Operanet: Who was the director?
GB: I'd better not say. In any event, I've blocked it out.
[A little conversation helped us establish that it was Hans
Operanet: How did it come about that you changed vocal
categories, or did you just add soprano roles to your repertoire? Do
you now consider yourself a soprano?
GB: I consider myself a singer who uses all of her voice.
Operanet: How many more are there like you?
GB: I don't know. Probably not enough. Too many singers stay
within one certain boundary. Instead of using all their instrument,
they just use that portion that is required at that particular time,
instead of trying to do whatever they can do with their entire voice.
Operanet: You have an enormous advantage - you started out
as a mezzo with the top notes. A lot of sopranos don't have...
GB: They don't know what they have. They're afraid of
trying. I have found so many singers, colleagues of mine, who haven't
really tried out the exposed notes. "I can't sing that",
they say. But you don't know until you try. I think this is something
that is a basic given for the black singer, because we come from our
church choirs. When you're a child you just sing, you don't pay
attention to what note it is. Who's going to sit down and say that
such a note is a high C, you just sing the music. In most cases, in
those days, you didn't have the music in front of you all the time
anyway. The person at the piano had the music, or maybe there were two
or three additional copies, and that was it. You just sang those
particular lines, and even if you had the music you weren't afraid of
it. You just knew that that was a high note. I remember years ago, I
was working on Nabucco, and I was home in St. Louis, singing
my lungs away. This little girl, the next-door neighbor, 8 or 10 years
old, heard me trying this note, and trying again, and she just opened
her mouth and sang the note. I was floored and went to the piano to
make sure I was in the right key. And it was the right note. It just
goes to show that when you're a child, you just sing for the love of
singing. If you reach the note, you reach it, but you don't pay
attention to what note it is. And that's how I got my wide range, as a
child. It was only later on, when I got into the profession, and was
made aware of the fact that that's a high C, that dreaded high C, that
I became nervous. But I soon got over that. "Come on Grace,
forget it, you sang those notes, you know how to do those notes. Just
do them." You have to go towards singing without fear.
Operanet: Did you have a natural voice which just needed
some little bits of training?
GB: I had a natural voice. That's where most people make a
mistake. Everyone's been given a natural voice by God, but you have to
learn how it functions. When you're young, you can get away with
things because you've got the daring, those notes are there, and by
accident they might even be very beautiful. But when you get into your
thirties and the youth and strength are no longer there, you have to
know how you did those sounds. I remember my teacher, Armand Tokatyan,
said to me, "Your voice was so beautifully placed and your first
teacher did such a wonderful job, that you don't have a lot to do, but
you have to know what to do when you get older, when you get tired.
When the voice is working well, anyone can sing well, but when you
don't feel well and don't feel like singing, you have to know how to
get the voice there." That's what these young singers don't know.
Operanet: Is it because they haven't been studying with the
right teachers, because this is a conscious mental effort as well.
GB: You know, everything starts in the head. Even a sound
you emit starts in the head. You have to first visualize that sound,
and then you take it from there, matching one note to the next. If
anyone says anything different, I just shake my head and look at them.
I once read an article in Opera News negating something that a famous
singer had said about vocal production all starting in the brain. And
I thought, how could he have the nerve to contradict the word of
someone who has tried and knows how it's done. And this person wasn't
even a singer. "The absolute cheek", I thought. How can he
say anything like that. Everything in life starts at the top, in the
brain. To emit a sound, you have to first focus on it. If you don't
have it there, how can you sing it? You also have to know what quality
of sound you want, a dark quality, a heavy quality, a lighter quality.
It all starts up there. At the same time, a lot has to do with the
fact that the times we're now living in are so fast and furious that
they want to get there yesterday.
Operanet: But you were different. Your career started when
you were 22 years old. You rarely see singers that young today
starting out. Maybe they'll be 25 or so, but you still have the
feeling that they're not ready
GB: You can't compare me with normal singers. My career,
like everything else with me, started off very quickly, simply because
I had a great talent. We have to realize that. And there's no sense in
beating around the bush, it is a great talent and God has been very
generous with me. But at the same time, I studied very hard, because I
wanted to know, I wanted to get there. But I didn't want to take a
quick way. I wanted to be able to sing a long time. That was one of
the things I said early in my life. I love singing. And if I can have
a career that lasts 40 years - in fact I never thought 40, i thought
30 years - that would be wonderful. And I'm almost at 40. We just have
to give ourselves enough time to do what we have to do. Each one of us
has to know for himself how much time he needs. [We discuss singers
who have not started an international career until their late 20s.] I
think that's a pretty good age because you have to know about yourself
and have some knowledge about career making. When I started I didn't
have a clue about how to make a career. All I knew was that I had a
wonderful voice and I wanted to sing. If I were starting today, I
would go about it a different way, with more knowledge, more purpose,
knowing exactly what I wanted to do and when.
Operanet: But you can't complain. You had your base in
Basle, you had engagements in Paris and then a Bayreuth debut.
GB: You do know that my debut was in Paris as Amneris, my
actual operatic debut. I've seen in some reports that I sang in Basel
first, but that's not so. The first time I sang on the stage was in
Paris, with Suzanne Sarrocca as Aida and Louis Fourestier conducting.
It was a wonderful experience for me because I was immediately thrown
into this thing of makeup. For me it was a perfect introduction.
Operanet: But you had experience doing student performances
or workshops when you were working with Lotte Lehmann.
GB: No, nothing at all.
Operanet: You mean you just jumped in at the deep end.
GB: In our master classes, Mme. Lehmann had worked with me
on Amneris, so I knew that role backwards and forwards, upside-down,
inside-out. Any time you work on one role for over six months, you
know everything about it, so I wasn't afraid. Had it been anything
else in which I had no experience, then I probably would have been a
basket case. When they offered me Amneris, I immediately said yes.
First they said Aida, but I said no, no, no - I'll take Amneris. And
that's really how my career started, because of what I chose. They did
not offer me a mezzo-soprano part - they first offered me Aida, then
Operanet: All of which roles you came to later in your
career. And now Klytemnestra.
GB: It's the hardest music, because it's a different style
than the music I'm accustomed to, even though I have sung Salomé,
but that was years ago. I think the thing that bothered me was the
constant changing of tempo, one measure of 3/4, then you go into 5/4
for three or four measures, then you go into 4/4. Then you've got to
think, mamma mia, will I ever get this music learned. I'm accustomed
to learning things very quickly.
Operanet: But you learned Jenufa, which must have been
equally as difficult.
GB: But I was also much younger. And that was a difficult
task too. I remember Magda Olivero pulling her hair out. I was talking
to somebody the other day who had been at those performances, and I
said, "You know, I'm at the age now when I could sing the
Kostelnicka." They asked me then which part did I want. And young
as I was, I said certainly Jenufa, never thinking that the better part
is really Kostelnicka. When I saw Magda in the first rehearsal, I
said, "Grace, you made a big mistake". But the timing now
would be great.
Operanet: Are there any roles you're sorry you didn't sing?
GB: No. I've sung all the roles I wanted to sing, but
perhaps not enough. Not enough Normas, Turandots, Trovatores,
Operanet: To come back to an earlier question, why is there
only one mezzo today with the power and strength to do the Verdi
roles, namely Dolora Zajick?
GB: I don't know, maybe it's a question of politics. My
point of view is that Dolora Zajick is not a mezzo soprano anyway.
She's a soprano. She sings mezzo because that's where the market is. I
was reading the other day that agents will go so far as tell a soprano
that they can use her as a mezzo, so that the poor singer has to
decide if that's what she wants.
Operanet: How would you advise young singers to fight this?
GB: I don't know. I've not been in that position, but I
think I would simply have to insist that that isn't my voice.
Operanet: What would you advise beginners today?
GB: To strive for excellence, that's the answer. If you
strive for excellence, that means that you are determined. You will
find a way to get to your goal, even if it means having to turn down
some really great offers. You have to live with that, as you have to
live with yourself. I remember when von Karajan offered me Donna Anna;
I couldn't understand why in the world he was offering me this role at
that point in my life. I hadn't even thought of becoming a soprano. It
was the farthest thing from my mind, especially as he had just
conducted me in Carmen. I thought that maybe he heard
something I didn't, but Solti had the same idea, and Maestro Böhm,
so I thought maybe there's something about my voice that I haven't
heard yet. That's when I chose to sing Salomé, to find out
what's there. But then von Karajan said, "But you do coloratura
so well", to which I replied that Verdi coloratura was not the
same thing as Mozart coloratura. My voice does not lend itself to
Mozart coloratura, because it is a heavy voice, not only big, but
heavy, which means that the coloration for Mozart is not the same
because I'm employing it with a Verdi coloratura sound. He just
couldn't take that, the fact that I said NO to him was unheard of.
Operanet: You weren't the only one.
GB: I don't know if I was at that time or not, but I'm not
worried about the others. The fact remains that he never used me after
that. The point I'm trying to make is that when a young singer takes a
decision, they have to stick with it, be it a good or a bad decision.
And if you really feel quite strongly about not doing something - even
with somebody very important - you stick with your decision. You must
have a reason for it. You must know your voice like you know the
inside of your head. And so many of them don't, unfortunately. How can
they at such an early age? I learned very early on when to say no. The
other thing is to stay away from the opera house after you've done
your rehearsals and performances. You don't want to get caught up in
all those intrigues. Do what you have to do at the theater and leave.
If you get involved in all those shenanigans, you get, as the Germans
say, zerstuckend, torn apart in little pieces. You just waste
your energy and you need your energy for when you're on stage. Your
audience is what's important, not all that little crappy stuff around
the theater. I never stayed around. Maybe that's why people called me
"stuck-up" or "stand-off", all those terrible
double words, but I don't care. Years ago, a dear friend from
California who was one of Visconti's assistants, Cynthia Wood, came to
my debut in Paris. She said, "Grace, whatever you do, make sure
you get to the theater, do your work and leave, because otherwise you
get involved in all of that s-h-i-t and there is no way to keep
yourself out of it. The best thing is not even to get started."
And she was right. You become involved in things that are unimportant.
If you're striving for something big, you've got no time for that. And
that's what they have to learn to do, stay away from all of that
Operanet: Tell me about your chorus, the Grace Bumbry Black
Musical Heritage Ensemble..
GB: It's a long name, we tried every way we could think of
to shorten it, but couldn't, so that's it. The 456 singers who
auditioned were basically from the South, Midwest and New York. It's a
spiritual and gospel chorus. I wanted a sound that I remember from my
high school days. My voice teacher was also the head of the music
department at the high school. He was a great teacher, had a great
voice, got his Ph.D from Northwestern University, and he gave me all
the rudiments of singing. He was a great chorus master, and the sound
we had in our choir was the sound I was trying to get for this chorus.
When they auditioned, I had them sing an aria, a spiritual and a
gospel. I wanted to see how musical they were, how they balanced, how
pliable they were in going from one to the other. This is how I was so
surprised to see that there's so much talent out there. I thought I
was the greatest thing God died for...
Operanet: ...she said with proper modesty...
GB: (big laugh) ...only to find out that I was just one
among many. That's how I know the talent is out there. There are 28
singers in the choir. I originally picked 56 so that there would be
some backup for those who dropped out. Then we have eight dancers and
Operanet: Is this a full time occupation for all these
GB: Not yet, but we're working on it.
Operanet: How much time do you spend with the group?
GB: For the time being, I've got to be there at almost every
performance. I'm hoping that on this big tour we're planning, that I
won't have to be there. Maybe at the beginning, somewhere in the
middle. The first tour is June, July and August 1998 of the Festivals,
followed by an Asian-Australian tour in the fall of 1998, after which
there will be a middle-Eastern tour and then a world tour. These are
all being worked on now. It's hard to get my singers for full-time at
this point, until we're sure that we have enough work for them. Some
of them are teachers, one or two are still students, one woman is a
sociologist, another is executive director of a national church
organization. It's a good group, an educated group, and that's why the
sound is different, a really beautiful sound. Of course, I wouldn't
put up with anything less than a beautiful sound. I am kind of new to
gospel music, other than a fleeting acquaintance. In our church - a
straitlaced Methodist church - we didn't have gospel music, just
hymns, anthems and spirituals, of course, but we never sang gospel
music which is different, much more beat, cymbals, etc. But now, in
the Methodist church, as in some Catholic churches, things have
changed. I've become more and more aware of gospel music and I must
say I am very moved by some of it. It's like everything else in life,
however, you have to pick and choose - all gospel music is not great
just as all classical music is not great. The chorus had its debut in
Salzburg - I don't believe in starting off small. Gérard
Mortier asked for us, so - it goes without saying - I said yes. It was
an enormous success. It was unbelievable, because you don't know how
an audience is going to react - you don't really ever know - to gospel
music in this setting which has always been for classical music. I
don't even know why I bothered to worry. They were right there from
the first note, clapping with the music. A Salzburg audience? It was a
huge success. Mortier wants us to come back, probably next year.
Operanet: One last question: is the fact that this year is
your 60th birthday another reason you might be stopping?
GB: No, I really wanted to stop in the year 2000. I had said
either my 60th birthday or the year 2000, so, six of one, half a dozen
of the other. When you can stop at this point, when you're still
singing very well, better that way than "Oh my God, is she still