Black History Month at the Met:
Remembering Three Great Carmens

In the latter part of the 20th century, the title role of Bizet’s Carmen became particularly associated at the Met with a trio of African American singing actresses.

When Grace Bumbry (pictured above with Justino Diaz as Escamillo) sang the title role of Carmen on December 15, 1967, it was the first time an African American singer had appeared with the Met in this classic role. Long refused solo parts at the Met, Black singers only gained access to principal roles in 1955, when General Manager Rudolf Bing hired the legendary contralto Marian Anderson to perform the part of Ulrica in Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera. It was a historic occasion, but the Met had missed several generations of fine, well-trained vocal talent because of social prejudices. However, over the ensuing decades, a steady stream of young, talented, and well-prepared African American singers began to take their rightful place on the nation’s premier opera stage.

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Grace Bumby with Met General Manager Rudolf Bing

Bumbry was among the most talented of the young wave of singers from all parts of America’s diverse population. Though she was a winner in the 1958 Met Auditions, she first achieved fame in Europe—like many American opera singers—where her debut at the age of 24 at the Bayreuth Festival as a particularly seductive Venus in the 1961 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, directed by Wieland Wagner, created a sensation. Dubbed the “Black Venus,” Bumbry was a logical choice for Herbert von Karajan to star in a new production of Carmen at the Salzburg Festival five years later. The New York Times reported, “Miss Bumbry often got thunderous applause for her singing and for her unconventionally sexy Carmen.” A recording starring Bumbry and her colleagues tenor Jon Vickers, soprano Mirella Freni, and bass-baritone Justino Diaz resulted and became an instant classic.

By the time Bumbry sang her first Met Carmen, she was one the world’s best-known interpreters of the role, having performed it 65 times. Two seasons earlier, her Met debut as Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo had established her as a powerful singing actress. “Not only by the vigor of her temperament but also by the vitality of her voice, she made a more potent factor in the drama than almost any predecessor in the Bing revival,” wrote noted music critic Irving Kolodin.

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Grace Bumby with Nicolai Gedda as Don José

Bumbry was triumphant in famed French actor and director Jean-Louis Barrault’s new production of Carmen, set in a bullfight arena. The review in The New Yorker read, “She is without question one of the fine ones [Carmens]. She is pretty. She has a voice of great scope, beautifully produced and shining with the gloss of youth. Her musical style is faultless, and she showed herself to be a good actress in spite of the direction.” Zubin Mehta conducted, and the starry cast included tenor Nicolai Gedda as Don José, soprano Jeannette Pilou as Micaëla, and Justino Diaz as Escamillo. Carmen would be a significant role in Bumbry’s Met career, one she would sing 27 times in three seasons.

In the second season of the Barrault production of Carmen, another great African American singer took up the title role. Like Bumbry, Shirley Verrett’s reputation preceded her. She, too, had won a spot on the Met’s National Council Auditions concert. Verrett sang the Habanera from Carmen at the 1961 finals. Success had greeted her in Europe when she sang Carmen at the Spoleto Festival in 1962, then repeated it the following year at Moscow’s storied Bolshoi Theatre. Verrett brought her Carmen to New York City Opera, made her debut at Covent Garden as Ulrica, and sang a critically acclaimed recital at Lincoln Center’s Philharmonic Hall. Carmen served as her official Met debut on September 21, 1968. “She is good-looking and she has a beautiful voice that moves smoothly from low tones to high. … All of these things helped make her an admirable Carmen … but not an overwhelming one,” wrote Allen Hughes in The New York Times.

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Shirley Verrett as Carmen

Once again, reviewers were horrified by the Barrault’s production, which seemed to have handicapped Verrett’s performance, and after four performances, she dropped the role from her Met repertoire. But Shirley Verrett was launched as one of the Met’s genuine stars, and her portrayals of Eboli in Don Carlo, and especially the role of Neocle in Rossini’s L’Assedio di Corinto, enhanced her reputation. The latter part she undertook for the much-anticipated Met debut of Beverly Sills. But it was Verrett’s thrilling vocalism in her fiendishly difficult role that brought the house down. “Shirley Verrett tore into it [her aria]. … I don’t recall ever hearing anything like it,” wrote Manuela Hoelterhoff in The Wall Street Journal.

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Shirley Verrett as Carmen and Jon Vickers as Don José

Verrett would go on to sing numerous roles including such high-profile events as the Met premiere of Berlioz’s Les Troyens (in which she sang both Cassandre and Didon), the Met premiere of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle (as Judith), and a new production of Donizetti’s La Favorita, opposite Luciano Pavarotti.

While the careers of Bumbry and Verrett largely overlapped, a third famous African American Carmen made her Met debut just after her two great predecessors ceased performing in opera. Washington, D.C. native Denyce Graves made her company debut as Carmen on October 7, 1995. Unlike her predecessors, Graves had built her career largely in the United States prior to her Met debut, performing Carmen initially at Minnesota Opera, then at San Francisco Opera, though she had also appeared in the role at Covent Garden and Italy’s Macerata Festival. Despite this, once she sang Carmen at the Met, her portrayal became the one most familiar to New York audiences for the next decade. She has sung the role of the seductress 48 times at the Met, the most of anyone since Marilyn Horne retired the part from her repertoire in 1988.

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Denyce Graves as Carmen

Reviewing her debut, critic Anthony Tommasini wrote in The New York Times, “Ms. Graves has a classic mezzo-soprano voice with dusky colorings and a wide range, from her chesty low voice to her gleaming high notes. She is a compelling stage actress who exuded the sensuality that any Carmen must have. Ms. Graves had the Met audience enthralled.”

When the Met staged a new production of Carmen the following season with a different singer in the title role, the director Franco Zeffirelli made no secret of his preference for Graves, who took over the second run of performances.

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Denyce Graves as Carmen

Carmen was only the beginning of Graves’s Met career, though by far her most frequently performed role. She has appeared in eight other roles, notably as Dalila in Saint-Saëns’s Samson et Dalila, Baba the Turk in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Maria in the Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, and most recently as Sally in the world-premiere production of Kevin Puts’s The Hours.

Bumbry, Verrett, and Graves were not the only great Carmens at the Met in the last half century, but they were very notable ones, each endowed with rich and colorful vocal timbres, as well as the temperament and physicality needed to portray opera’s most iconic femme fatale. 

—Peter Clark, Consultant/Historian and former Director of the Metropolitan Opera Archives