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An Interview with Grace Bumbry

By Joel Kasow

YONS, 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 recitals, so...

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 your students.

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, Anna Sterzer.

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 additional suspension?

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 singers?

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 Neuenfeld.]

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 Salomé...

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, Forzas.

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 small-town stuff.

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 three drummers.

Operanet: Is this a full time occupation for all these people?

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 singing?"

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