Grace Pompry, a barrier-breaking tenor soprano whose wide vocal range and supreme stage presence made her a defining figure in opera, and one of its first and biggest black stars, died Sunday in Vienna. She was 86 years old.
She was confirmed dead from a stroke in October in the current situation by the Metropolitan Opera in New York, where she has long been a mainstay, and has performed more than 200 times over two decades.
Growing up in segregation-era St. Louis, Ms. Pompry came of age at a time when African-American singers were a rare sight on the opera stage, despite breakthroughs from such luminaries as Leontyne Price and Marian Anderson.
But with a fierce drive and huge charisma, Ms. Pompry broke out internationally in 1960, at the age of 23, when she sang Amneris in Verdi’s “Aida” at the Paris Opera.
The following year, I landed in nothing of National scandal in West Germany when Wieland Wagner, grandson of Richard Wagner, cast her as Venus, the Roman goddess of love, in a modern version of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser” at the famous Bayreuth Festival.
She was the first black woman to perform at the festival, and is portrayed as a typical Nordic character in an opera written by a composer known for anti-Semitism and German nationalism. The festival – and newspapers – were filled with letters confirming that the composer would “turn around in his grave”.
Mrs. Pombrey did not flinch. In fact, she was well prepared.
“Everything I learned from my childhood is being tested now,” she said in an interview with St. Louis Magazine in 2021. “Because I remember being discriminated against in the United States, why would it be different in Germany?”
The audience shared no such misgivings: Mrs. Pompre was showered with 30 minutes of applause. German critics were equally intrigued, dubbing it “The Black Rose”. The newspaper Kölnische Rundschau of the Cologne region gave her credit for “Technical victoryand Die Welt He called it “a great find”.
Her outstanding performance helped her earn a $250,000 contract (equivalent to over $2.5 million now) with impresario Sol Heroc.
Another honor also won her: a performance at the White House, in February 1962. On the advice of European friends who had seen Mrs. Pomprey at Bayreuth, Jacqueline Kennedy, the first lady, invited her to sing at a state dinner attended by President John F. Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and the Chief Justice Earl Warren and other Washington power brokers.
Suddenly, I became a star.
“If there is a new sound more exciting than that of Grace Bumbrey rising over the horizon I have not heard,” Claudia Cassidy wrote in the Chicago Tribune in a review of her song recording that same year. her utmost beauty.”
In her Carnegie Hall debut in November 1962, Allan Rich of The New York Times gave a qualifying review, but allowed that “Miss Pompry has a wonderful, clear, resonant voice and a great deal of control over it.”
He wrote, “She can swoop effortlessly from a bright high-pitched voice to a beautiful, booming chest note.”
Ms. Pombry has transcended not only racial perceptions, but vocal ratings as well. Originally a mezzo-soprano, she made an amazing breakthrough by co-performing soprano parts as well, which gave her access to notable roles in operas such as Richard Strauss’s “Salome” and Puccini’s “Tosca”..“
“She bragged about the fact that she was able to perform Both roles Writing for Verdi’s “Aïda,” Fred Plotkin wrote in a 2013 appreciation for the website of New York public radio station WQXR. “It could be Tosca and Salome, but also Carmen and Eboli.”
Ms. Pombry has been offered a wide range of roles in her choice. In 1985, she received raves for her performance as Bess in George Gershwin’s Metropolitan Opera 50th Anniversary Show. “Porgy Bess,” despite her conflicting feelings about a popular opera set among Charleston, South Carolina tenements, and teeming with unflattering black stereotypes.
“I thought it was under meShe said in an interview with Life magazine. “I felt like I had worked too hard, that we’d come too far to have to go back to 1935. And my way of dealing with it was to see that it’s really a piece of Americana, of American history, whether we like it or not. Whether I sing it or not, it’s still exist.”
Grace Melzia Pombri was born on January 4, 1937, in St. Louis, the youngest of three children of Benjamin Pombri, a railroad freight worker, and Melzia Pombri, a teacher.
A musical prodigy as a young woman, she honed her skills in the choir at St. Louis Union Memorial Church and by performing Chopin on piano at the ladies’ tea parties. At the age of 16, she saw a performance by Ms. Anderson, who would become a mentor, and was inspired to enter a singing competition on a local radio station. She took first prize, which included a $1,000 war bond and a scholarship to the St. Louis Conservatory of Music. However, she was refused admission due to her race.
“The reality was hurting,” Ms. Pombry said in an interview with the Boston Globe. “But when it happened, I also thought I was the winner. Nothing can change that. My talent is superior.”
Embarrassed, the radio contest organizers arranged for her to appear on The Talent Scouts, a national radio and television program hosted by Arthur Godfrey. After hearing her moving rendition of “O Don Fatale” from Verdi’s “Don Carlo,” Mr. Godfrey tells the audience, “Her name will one day become one of the most famous in music.”
The exposure helped put her on the path to Boston University, and later Northwestern University, where she fell under the tutelage of German opera star Lotte Lehmann, who became another valuable tutor as Mrs. Pompry progressed toward her start in Paris.
As her star continues to rise through the years, Ms. Pompry has never been afraid to inhabit the role of the prima donna offstage as well as in her role, outfitting herself in Yves Saint Laurent and Oscar de la Renta and tooling in a Lamborghini.
After marrying tenor Erwin Jaekel in 1963, she settled in a villa in Lugano, Switzerland. The couple divorced in 1972. Mrs. Pompre left no survivors.
In addition to her impressive vocal skills, Ms. Pompry has added popular fame to her roles, a reputation she put to good use in a 1970 performance of “Salome” at London’s Royal Opera House.
Word leaked to the press that for her sultry “Seven Veil Dance,” she’d take off all seven veils, right down to her “jewels and perfume,” as she puts it — though the jewels, as it turned out, were enough to act as a “modest bikini.” , as noted by The New York Times.
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