Should Wieland Wagner really not have expected the scandal? Or should he have calculated it, planned it as an honorable and promising scandal when he cast the role of Venus in "Tannhäuser" in 1961 with a beautiful, young woman – a black woman who, unlike many others, did not sing as if she were delivering the punishment with sin: Grace Bumbry. The lord of the new Bayreuth countered the clamor of the zealots: "My grandfather wrote for vocal colors, not for skin colors."

On the way to the top, there had been few obstacles for Grace Bumbry, a native of St. Louis, Missouri. Since her brothers sang in a Methodist church, she came into contact with music at an early age. She received piano lessons at the age of seven, her first singing lessons at fifteen, and began studying at Boston University at seventeen. After moving to Northwestern University in Chicago, she met Lotte Lehmann, with whom she studied for three years in Santa Barbara, as well as theory and piano (with György Sandor). In the winter of 1958, she and Martina Arroyo won the Met auditions. In 1959 she went to London to take part in Lotte Lehmann's masterclasses at London's Wigmore Hall, was introduced to Bayreuth by her teacher, gave her first song recitals and made her debut in March 1960 as Amneris ("Aida") in Paris.

The demonic fury of her singing

The success in Bayreuth opened all doors for her. In 1963 she appeared in Covent Garden as Eboli ("Don Carlo"), in 1964 at the Vienna State Opera as Santuzza ("Cavalleria Rusticana") and at the Salzburg Festival as Lady Macbeth alongside Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. The recording shows that the demonic fury of her singing makes the weakness of the title hero palpable – both dramaturgically and vocally.

At the Met in 1965 she introduced herself as Eboli ("Don Carlo"), at La Scala in 1966 as Azucena ("Il Trovatore"). Herbert von Karajan, under whom she had sung the role of Carmen in Salzburg in 1966, offered her the role of Donna Anna in "Don Giovanni"; after she refused, justifiably referring to the thousand small coloratura notes, he is said not to have spoken a word to her again. In 1970 she sang Salome for the first time in London under Georg Solti. It was given an "outstanding performance" by the English critic William Mann; but the praise for the performer was inscribed with a warning to the singer: "She screeches in the upper register."

She soon conquered a pole position at Café Society, where she took on the role of the "Red Hot Diva", whose insignia the glamorous singer quickly took a liking to: the exquisite robes, the finest hotel suites and the befitting Rolls Royce. An oft-told Salzburg anecdote reports that she got involved in a race bet with Karajan. The new gate was blocked, Bumbry drove a Lamborghini, Karajan a high-powered Ford, which he returned the next day after losing.

"And I would have loved to be a prima donna" – a motive for the suffering of many mezzo-sopranos: Grace Bumbry's ambition was too great for her to take on the role of a seconda donna on stage. How ambition seethed within her was evident in performances of "Aida," which she sang alongside Leontyne Price in February 1967. Or rather: against them. A review is archived in the Met's database, in which it can be read that she turned into a harpy while singing gloriously and turned the conflict between the two opera characters into a rivalry with the greatest American diva. Trusting in the high notes that she certainly achieved in her mezzo roles, Grace Bumbry has also sung Leonora (in "Il Trovatore" as well as in "La forza del destino"), Elisabetta ("Don Carlo") and Aida since the seventies, as well as Norma, Gioconda, Tosca and Bess, thus putting herself in danger zones. The problem is not to achieve individual high (and highest) notes, but to adapt the voice to the position and focus of the parts.

In a conversation with critic Stephen Rubin, she said: "Moving over to soprano is one thing, mastering the change the way I did is another. I now have my pianissimi, as I have never had it before, with a full, round tone. I didn't achieve that until last May [of 1980]." However, many accounts of her performances in the soprano repertoire suggest that although she had brilliant evenings as Tosca or Bess, she disappointed as Norma, Abigaille ("Nabucco"), Leonora ("La forza del destino") or Aida. In the magazine "Opera News" an employee of the Metropolitan Opera was quoted as saying: "That's the greatest voice anybody ever ruined".

The fact that the recording industry, which had embraced her for a decade, could no longer find any more jobs for her suggests that she was no longer the first choice as a soprano. Her last major vocal part was that of Chimène in Jules Massenet's "Le Cid" in 1976.

The singer, who is sometimes jealously and sometimes mockingly referred to as "amazing Grace" by colleagues, remains remembered as Prima Donna Mezzo-Soprano – as demanded by Verdi on the playbill for Azucena, Eboli and Amneris. Grace Bumbry died in Vienna on Sunday. She was 86 years old.