Grace Bumbry ’58, one of the world’s most renowned opera singers and an alumna of the Northwestern University Bienen School of Music, died May 7 at age 86.

Bumbry began her studies at Boston University before attending Northwestern, where she met legendary soprano Lotte Lehmann. Lehmann invited Bumbry to continue studying with her in Santa Barbara, California, at the Music Academy of the West. In 1958, Bumbry was named a winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. She made her operatic debut as Amneris in Aida at the Paris Opera in 1960.

Among her many firsts, Bumbry was the first African American to be cast in a major role at the prestigious Bayreuth Festival in Germany. President Kennedy and First Lady Jackie Onassis Kennedy invited Bumbry to perform at the White House in 1962, which marked the first time an African American opera singer had performed in the White House. Beginning her career as a mezzo-soprano, Bumbry later expanded her repertoire to include dramatic soprano roles. Throughout her distinguished career, she performed in nearly every major opera house in the world.

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Grace Bumbry leads a vocal master class in Lutkin Hall on September 22, 1997. (Photo by Jennifer Bolino, courtesy Northwestern University Archives.)

Bumbry received the Northwestern Alumni Merit Award in 1969 and the Alumnae Award in 1997. She returned to Northwestern’s campus twice to present master classes for Bienen voice students, in September 1997 and February 1999.

In 2009, President Obama bestowed upon Bumbry the Kennedy Center Award for the Arts. She was also the recipient of four honorary doctorates, France’s Commandeur des Arts et Lettres, and Italy’s Premio Giuseppe Verdi for her performances and contribution to Italian opera.

(Photo, top left: Bumbry in Evanston, September 1997, by Jennifer Bolino, courtesy Northwestern University Archives; right, photo by Stella Boda.)

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