A voice to inspire the generations

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Only last week chemists throughout the UK were being besieged by hordes of women (and a few men) who had heard that a new anti-ageing cream had gone on sale. A few words of endorsement from an expert and they were ready to risk life and limb being trampled underfoot in the hope of keeping a wrinkle or two at bay.

Why the excitement? If it was hard evidence they wanted, there is plenty to show that music can keep you young. Think of the conductors who get a workout on the concert podium with a baton in one hand and a bus pass in the other, or the pianist Mieczyslaw Horszowski, still going strong as he passed his 100th birthday. Admittedly it is more difficult for singers, but Peter Pears famously made his Metropolitan Opera debut at the age of 64, only to have his record snatched away a year later by Magda Olivero, aged 65.

At this stage Grace Bumbry has presumably said her farewells at the Met – her career there, starting with Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo in 1965, was an illustrious one – but she seems to have set her sights on a record of her own. Her appearance at the Wigmore Hall on Wednesday was a recital to mark her 70th birthday. Although a handful of singers at her age enjoy occasional outings in select roles at the opera, a serious solo recital by a singer entering her eighth decade is a fairly rare occurrence.

Everything we knew about Bumbry told us she had the resolve to carry it off. In the early 1960s she was at the forefront of the black American singers who set out to break down racial barriers. In Bumbry’s case her most visible stand came at Bayreuth, where she faced the opposition of an aggressive minority. “It was lacking in taste to let a black person take part in these sacred halls,” said one typical letter to Wagner’s grandson.

Needless to say, Wednesday’s audience at the Wigmore was more supportive. When the start of one of her Rachmaninov songs went awry, Bumbry stopped and apologised. “You’re forgiven!” called a voice from the stalls. At 70, even the best- preserved singer hits patches where the voice does not do what it is being asked to. The opening groups of arias by Handel and Lieder by Mozart were, in effect, a warm-up. In some later songs – “Le spectre de la rose” from Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été in particular – the voice refused to move flexibly from note to note.

What we were not given – wisely – was a trip down memory lane. Bumbry kept well away from her old operatic successes and offered a genuine song recital programme. Accompanied with alluring tone by the pianist Alexander Schmalcz, she sang a couple of Schubert’s Schwanengesang (a pensively serious “Die Taubenpost”), two of Wagner’s Wesendonk Lieder (including a dark-coloured “Träume”), and two of Falla’s Seven Popular Spanish Songs (both charismatic). Enough to show what she cannot do any more, but also enough to show what she can.

As a symbol for young black singers today, there could be nobody more magnetic. But where are her successors? Compared with the generation whose careers lit up the postwar world of opera (Leontyne Price, Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle), there are precious few of equal standing now. If pockets of racial prejudice remain in the music industry, they cannot be anything like as obstructive as 50 years ago. Will the next Grace Bumbry please stand up?
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