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Grace Bumbry, a trailblazing Black opera singer, has died at age 86

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

We bid farewell today to a glorious voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MACBETH: ACT I: CORO DI STREGHE - STRETTA DELL'INTRODUZIONE - 'S'ALLONTANARONO!'")

GRACE BUMBRY: (Singing in Italian).

PFEIFFER: Grace Bumbry has died at age 86. She was part of the first generation of Black female opera stars following Marian Anderson, along with Leontyne Price and Jessye Norman. Bumbry was known for her wide range and distinct tone. Brandon Gates has our remembrance.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VERDI: DON CARLO / ACT 4 - O DON FATALE")

BUMBRY: (Singing in Italian).

BRANDON GATES, BYLINE: Grace Bumbry always knew she had it.

BUMBRY: Either you have it or you don't. And it's not something that you decide upon. I think it decides for you.

GATES: The St. Louis native explained to NPR in 1990 her fate had already been decided. Initially not interested in opera but rather classical music and influenced by seeing Marian Anderson perform, she spent her childhood obsessed with music.

BUMBRY: I knew I had to be a singer. That was what my life was all about. You see; up to that point, I was a piano student. I had studied piano at the age - from age of 7 until I was 15, but I wanted to definitely seriously become a singer of classical music.

GATES: And Bumbry became a serious singer. In 1954, at age 17, she won a radio talent competition and a scholarship to study at a local conservatory. Because of segregation, she was not allowed to take classes with white students but offered private lessons.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIDA: ACT II: SCENE 1: VIENI, SUL CRIN TI PIOVANO")

BUMBRY: (Singing in Italian).

GATES: Her international debut at the Paris Opera in 1960 was influenced by Jackie Kennedy. Bumbry performed as Amneris in "Aida."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AIDA: ACT II: SCENE 1: VIENI, SUL CRIN TI PIOVANO")

BUMBRY: (Singing in Italian).

GATES: Her triumph in Paris opened the doors to Bayreuth. There at the festival that's the spiritual home of Richard Wagner, Bumbry sang the role of Venus in a production of "Tannhauser" in 1961.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TANNHAUSER: ACT III SCENE 3: WILLKOMMEN, UNGETREUER MANN!")

BUMBRY: (Singing in German).

GATES: She was the first Black person to sing at Bayreuth. Casting a Black American as Venus instead of a Nordic blonde was met with skepticism and racism from opera purists and the German media. Bumbry ignored the controversy. Her performance was met with a 30-minute standing ovation, necessitating 42 curtain calls. But after great success as a mezzo-soprano, Grace Bumbry shocked the opera world by committing to singing mostly soprano in the 1970s.

BUMBRY: I probably am the only singer ever in history to have made a career as a leading mezzo-soprano - I mean, really a top career as a mezzo-soprano - and then all in sudden in mid-stream to change to soprano.

GATES: She would toggle between both ranges over the rest of her 60-year career, says music professor Naomi Andre.

NAOMI ANDRE: She sang between roles that one person normally doesn't always sing, and so her voice had this incredible, smooth creaminess and strength in places where you wouldn't always expect in the same voice, an incredibly gorgeous sound.

GATES: That gorgeous sound was a sort of summoning for the next generation of Black singers and performers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LE CID - OPERA IN FOUR ACTS: MOURIR! TU VAS MOURIR...")

BUMBRY: (Singing in French).

GATES: For NPR News, I'm Brandon Gates.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LE CID - OPERA IN FOUR ACTS: MOURIR! TU VAS MOURIR...")

BUMBRY: (Singing in French). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Brandon Gates