Grace Ann Bumbry grew up at 1703 Goode Ave. in St. Louis. She joined the Union Memorial Methodist Church’s choir at eleven, and sang at Sumner High School. She was a 1954 winner on the "Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts." A mezzo-soprano who also successfully sang the soprano repertoire, Grace Bumbry recorded on four labels and sang in concerts worldwide.
In 1955 she entered Northwestern University, where she studied voice and transferred to the Music Academy of the West in Santa Barbara, California. In 1958 she was joint winner of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions. She made her professional debut in a recital in London in 1959. Her first operatic appearance was at the Paris Opéra, as Amneris in Verdi's Aida. It was one of the most spectacular operatic debuts in history; Bumbry became an instant star and was invited to join the roster of the Basle Opera. She made operatic history in 1961 when she was engaged by Wieland Wagner to sing at the Bayreuth Festival and became the first black singer to perform in that shrine of Wagnerian opera. Furthermore, musical historian Nicolas Slomimsky has pointed out that she was the first African American to make a professional operatic as a goddess, for her debut at Bayreuth was as Venus in Tannhäuser, July 23, 1961. Bumbry embarked on a concert tour of the United States and was invited by Jacqueline Kennedy to sing at the White House, on February 20, 1962. She also followed up her smash success at Bayreuth with appearances as Venus at the Chicago Lyric Opera and at Lyons, France.
Now living in Austria after decades in Switzerland, Bumbry has a warm speaking voice colored as much by the music she has sung as by her upbringing. There's a hint of an Italian sunniness to her vowels and the lightly rolled R's; an echo of German lieder in the crisp cutoffs of consonants, the precise diction. Bumbry was honored by the Kennedy Center in Washington in 2009.