Sunday with Grace                


How does a guy manage to leave home in Oklahoma for a quick vacation to Austria, and then find himself a few days later standing right next to the great Grace Bumbry, singing church hymns around her piano in her elegant living room?  Well, after a surprising string of events, that is just what happened -- nearly five hours with Grace, one of the most famous opera singers in history.  She was 76 then, but still not retired; it's unheard of for an opera singer to still be performing at her age, but she can, and does. 

She grew up in St. Louis, and was noticed in her church choir for having an outstanding voice.  She was encouraged to study voice in college, but at that time, in the 1950's, it was practically unheard of for a black person to try to make a career in that whitest of art forms, opera.  That didn't stop her; she became a part of that first great group to break the race barrier in opera performance, along with Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, and Jessye Norman.  She was the very first black person to sing at Wagner's own opera house at Bayreuth, Germany, in the opera Tannhäuser, which caused quite a scandal -- what, a black Venus?!!  But the scandal died away when she just blew them away with the grandeur of her voice.  She was known as being the ultimate diva in public -- always seen in jewels, furs, designer clothes, and driving the most elegant cars -- but much of that was just a put-on; she found all that necessary for her public image so people would take her more seriously in her profession. 

I had actually heard her once, back in the '70s, singing Lady Macbeth at the San Francisco opera with Sherrill Milnes, and even got her autograph way back then.  She specialized at first in the heavy mezzo roles like Azucena, Eboli, Carmen, and Amneris, but later moved up to the higher soprano roles like Tosca, Norma, and even the ultra-high Turandot.  So now, here I was at her house, smack in the middle of the oldest part of Salzburg, Austria!  How did that happen?

I had been writing for a while to a well-known pianist, as an e-mail penpal, so he invited me to come visit him in Salzburg while I was in Austria.  He had been teaching at the famous Salzburg Mozarteum university for over 30 years, but he was from St. Louis also.  Being a black man, he had never been able to get a decent position as a college piano professor in the US when he was young, so he had gone to Europe to work and had done very well.  He happened to show me the program for an upcoming concert he was going to be in, and at the top it said something about the concert being sponsored in part by Kammersängerin Grace Bumbry.

I was amazed.  “Have you actually met her?!” 

"She's my sister," he said. 

"No way!" I said.  "You look a lot more like Jessye than Grace."  He looked peeved, as Jessye Norman is no beauty, but actually yes -- he was just kidding (and yes, he does look like Jessye.)  Grace was only a distant relative, but they certainly knew each other.  In fact, he went to a little Bible study in her apartment every Sunday morning.

"Would you like to come along tomorrow?" 

I certainly would!  First though, that evening, it was my job (and my idea) to put together a large Mexican meal for a group of Germans and Austrians at his house.  I spent hours that day shopping, chopping, peeling, shredding, and cooking, so the guests could have their first taste of real Mexican food.  I had to teach them how to put tacos together and how to eat them without juice dripping down their elbows.  It was all quite a hit -- everybody had at least two, and one young German, the captain of a professional soccer team, had four tacos, then cleaned up all the leftovers.

But for me, the highlight of the trip would be the next morning, meeting Grace -- though of all the famous singers in the world, she was one of the last that I would have ever dreamed I would get, or want, to meet, such was her haughty, unapproachable, jet-set grand diva image, and I'm just an Okie boy.  But I knew I can put on a classy image too if I have to, even though all I had to wear was my baggy travel clothes and hiking boots.

We arrived the next morning, and she was of course very gracious and charming, not a bit like what her public image had always been -- at heart, she was still a Missouri girl from "the better part of the wrong side of the tracks", as she put it.  I was made to feel very welcome; Southern hospitality was very much in evidence.

There was a large old portrait of an elderly lady on one wall, so I asked her who it was.

“That was Lotte Lehmann, my voice teacher.”

“Oh, when she was living in Santa Barbara?” I said.  That shocked her -- she suddenly realized I wasn’t just some guy that her friend had dragged in; that apparently I knew a great deal about music history to know a small detail like that.  So she started talking to me a lot.

There were dozens of pictures on her walls; she spent a long time with me, pointing out the role she was playing in every one of them, telling me where, and with whom she was singing.  She was amazed that I recognized many of the pictures before she could tell me about them -- "This is you singing Orfeo!"  "Here you are as Delilah," etc.  But many of her pictures there have never been published before, like the one with her sitting in her famous Carmen costume on the front of her Lamborghini Miura.  She was impressed I knew that it was a Miura!  She told me it was only the second one ever produced.  She also had about a dozen pictures on the piano of her with past US presidents and first ladies, plus a wall full of awards and diplomas.  She told me interesting details like what happened that prevented her from ever getting to sing Kundry in Parsifal, and told me that her favorite tenor was Franco Corelli.  She also was delighted that she and I are both Capricorns! 

Then came the Bible study.  We sang three hymns, and yes, I was standing at the piano right beside her, and she made sure I chose all three of the hymns, even though I protested more than once that others should have the chance.  I don't remember how we sounded, all I could think was, "I do not believe I'm standing here singing right beside the great Grace Bumbry!!!!"  Then we sat down to watch some kind of a sermon on YouTube, which after half an hour of trying, never did come in, so she finally decided to skip that and just start on the chosen study chapter, James 5, which we read aloud in two translations.  A long discussion ensued, guided of course mainly by Miss B, as they all called her (though sometimes they called her The Queen).  Then we all stood in a circle, joined hands, and each person said a prayer.  I totally hate being put on the spot like that, but I didn't want to just stand there like a lump when my turn came up, especially since I've probably had more experience with public prayer than any of them; so I knew I could manage it, so I did.  Later, they told me my praying was "cute", since I used the thee's and thou's like our church always did, which hardly anybody does any more.

Then, it was time for the meal!  There were only 6 of us there that day -- she, two of her students, the husband of one of them, and the pianist who had invited me -- all Americans.  I had been there for two hours before it suddenly occurred to me I was the only white person in the group, but who cared.  One of her students and husband had spent hours cooking -- pot roast, collard greens, cornbread, sweet potatoes, and a pecan pie.  Not exactly Austrian cuisine!  It was glorious, and the table setting was elegant.  I was informed ahead of time that The Queen would be quite observant of table manners, so I was mindful of my elbows and of which fork to use.  All during the meal, there was no real music talk at all, just talk like you might get at any group of people from Mid-America.

I had to leave finally, after nearly five hours, to catch a train back to Vienna.  I asked my pianist friend afterward if I had managed to act respectable enough, and not too much like some country hick.  He said, “Oh, she loved you, or she wouldn't have told you, ‘Come back any time!’”

 * * * * * * * * *

Biography -- Click here:  Grace Bumbry -- Wikipedia

Click here to hear her singing the role of the gypsy girl Carmen (many years ago):
            Grace Bumbry -- Carmen -- YouTube.
Make the YouTube screen large for better viewing, and click off the advertisements.
Move the slide bar to 19:35 to hear Carmen's famous aria, the Habanera.
47:25 -- the Seguidilla.
57:10 -- the Gypsy Song
2:36:50 -- the death scene, with Jon Vickers.

 Pictures below:








In Berlin, 2013: