In 1954, Dorothy Dandridge made history as the first woman of color to be cast in the lead of a Carmen-based character in Carmen Jones. While others we are familiar with have played the role in updated versions, people probably are unaware of the most successful Carmen of color, the electrifying soprano, Grace Bumbry.
Considered one of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation, as well as a major soprano for many years, Bumbry was a member of a pioneering generation of singers who followed Marian Anderson (including Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett and Reri Grist) in the world of classical music and paved the way for future African American opera and classical singers.
Her voice was described as rich and sizable, possessing a wide range, and was capable of producing a very distinctive plangent tone. In her prime, she also possessed good agility and bel canto technique. Bumbry was particularly noted for her fiery temperament and dramatic intensity on stage.
In 1966 she appeared as Carmen opposite Jon Vickers’s Don José in two different lauded productions, one with conductor Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg and the other for Bumbry’s debut with the San Francisco Opera. In 1967 she sang Carmen again in her debut with the Philadelphia Lyric Opera Company. She also starred in the film verision, Bizet – Carmen, the French opera film in 1967 in the title role once again displaying her passionate form and heavenly voice.
Just as there was outrage when Dandridge took on the role in ’54 (with her singing voice dubbed by a then unknown 18-year older named Marilyn Horne who became one of the greatest opera singers), it was similar for Bumbry. Once again there was shock and horror that a black woman played the role of Carmen. But once Bumbry began to sing, the objects were instantly muted.
These days, the St. Louis native and trailblazer, Bumbry now 76, still remains active and makes her home in Austria. Carrying the torch of those who came before her, she also maintains the distinction as the best Carmen of color that many that sadly remains unfamiliar to many in the popular culture.
Check out Bumbry as she sings Habanera in the opera Film Carmen.