Breaking Barriers at Bayreuth

 In Conversation with Grace Bumbry

Friday, March 26 at 11am PT on Zoom

On-demand recording available to ticket holders 24 hours after airing





60 years after becoming the first Black singer to perform at Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival, Grace Bumbry joins Kenneth Overton to reflect on this pivotal moment in history.

Local opera goers were incensed. The press incited protests. But Grace Bumbry was not to be deterred.

 On July 24, 1961, Bumbry became the first Black singer to perform at Richard Wagner’s Bayreuth Festival Opera House. Her performance was immediately heralded by the audience. After a 30-minute ovation and 42 bows, Bumbry was propelled into international stardom.

Now 60 years later, Bumbry joins Kenneth Overton, lauded baritone and an associate producer of the upcoming documentary Black Opera, to reflect on this pivotal moment in history in the context of urgent calls for racial equity.

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Grace Bumbry Headshot

About Grace Bumbry

Grace Bumbry’s obsession with singing began when she was still a child. That obsessiontogether with a ravishing natural voice, an extraordinary talent, and unwavering determinationled to one of the most illustrious operatic careers of the 20th century.

Moving from one range to the other with breathtaking ease gave her a singular spectrum of roles from Santuzza (Cavalleria rusticana), Ortrud (Lohengrin), Dalila (Samson et Dalila), Adalgisa (Norma), Kundry (Parsifal), Eboli (Don Carlo), Orfeo and Carmen to Salome, Elisabeth (Tannhäuser), Norma, Gioconda, Aïda, Tosca, Medea, Elvira (Ernani), Leonora (Il trovatore and La forza del destino), Bess (Porgy and Bess), and Turandot. She made her San Francisco Opera debut in 1966 as the titular role in Bizet's Carmen and went on to sing lead roles in La Gioconda, Macbeth, and Nabucco.

Her international career began in 1960. She sang Amneris in Aïda at the Paris Opera, a performance that would be covered by the international press and analyzed note for note by one of the most sophisticated audiences in the world.

In 1961, Wieland Wagner, grandson of Richard Wagner, cast Bumbry as Venus in a new production of Tannhäuser. As the Goddess of Love that seduces Wagner’s noble hero, Bumbry would be the first black opera singer to appear at Bayreuth, the world’s most revered shrine to the great composer and his art. It was a move that infuriated a good many conservative opera-goers, many calling it a cultural disgrace. The media frenzy that ensued was global. The performance became one of the most celebrated in history. Thunderous applause rocked the theater for 30 minutes as the cast was brought back to the stage for 42 curtain calls. Jacqueline Kennedy subsequently invited her to sing at the White House. She won the public’s adoration and along the way smashed a racial barrier that would no longer stand in the way of future generations of opera and classical singers.

Decades later, Bumbry was named Honorary UNESCO Ambassador, cited for her achievements as an artist and for her work in support of education, health, and youth causes. At age 84, Bumbry is still on the trailblazing move. She is also a much sought-after jury member of international vocal competitions. In December 2009, she received the most prestigious and coveted award in America for one’s contribution to the arts, The Kennedy Center Honors: a landmark moment that once again epitomizes Bumbry’s tradition for firsts. She received this honour and celebration at the hands of President Barack Obama, America’s first African American president, at the first Kennedy Center Honors award ceremony that he officiated.

About Kenneth Overton

Kenneth Overton is lauded for blending his opulent baritone with magnetic and varied portrayals that seemingly “emanate from deep within body and soul.”

Raised in Philadelphia, Overton made his San Francisco Opera debut as Frazier in Porgy and Bess and has gone on to sing the role of Sid in La Fanciulla del West and Second Mate in Billy Budd. Overton has performed with Utah Festival Opera and Musical Theatre, Opera Memphis, Sacramento Opera, Nashville Opera, Connecticut Opera, Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, Boheme Opera of NJ, Houston Ebony Opera Guild, Toledo Opera, Opera Delaware, Shreveport Opera, Opera Tampa, and Opera Carolina. Amidst performing, Kenneth serves as co-founder and artistic director of Opera Noire of New York, a performing arts organization created to empower African-American artists to reach their full creative potential in a creative supportive environment.


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