Tag Archives: Richard Wagner

Grace Bumbry, black Venus

grace-bumbry-as-venus

When Wieland Wagner engaged the 24-year-old Grace Bumbry for the role of Venus in the 1961 Bayreuth production of Tannhäuser he received hundreds of letters of protest, and the German press exploded with sensational headlines about the black intruder in the sacred Aryan shrine.

The neo-Nazi Sozialistische Reichspartei Deutschlands called the appointment “a cultural disgrace”, and one correspondent asserted that “If Richard Wagner knew of this he would be turning in his grave.”

But Wieland Wagner stood by the artist who had been dubbed die schwarze Venus (the black Venus), saying that the role “must convey eroticism without resorting to the clichés of a Hollywood sex bomb, yet she cannot personify the classic passive idea…When I heard Grace Bumbry I knew she was the perfect Venus; grandfather would have been delighted!”

Indeed, following the production’s first performance on 24 July a jubilant audience commanded 42 curtain calls during its 30-minute ovation, the most rousing demonstrations occurring during Bumbry’s bows.

This according to “Grace Bumbry: Modern diva” by Rosalyn M. Story, an essay included in And so I sing: African-American divas of opera and concert (New York: Warner, 1990, pp. 141–56).

Today is Bumbry’s 80th birthday! Above and below, the historic production.

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The Ring recast

Gotterdammerung new3

Gil Kane’s and Roy Thomas’s graphic novel Richard Wagner’s “The ring of the Nibelung”  (New York: DC Comics, 1997) transforms Wagner’s dramma in musica into dramma in pittura.

Kane’s artwork visually follows Wagner’s musical fabric while retaining the means of expression characteristic of the comic-book format. His images do not autonomously narrate the tale; rather, they double the musical narrative form established by Wagner.

For example, the drama of Die Walküre begins not with the curtain opening on the first scene, but with its instrumental Vorspeil, which depicts the storm through which Siegmund is running. In his graphic version of the opera, Kane begins with four pages of pictures without text, depicting visually the action painted by Wagner’s orchestral score.

This according to “Od glazbene do slikovne drame: Roy Thomasov i Gil Kaneov strip Wagnerova Prstena Nibelunga by Zdravko Blažeković (Hrvatsko slovo: Tjednik za kulturu I/18 [25 August 1995] pp. 22–23).

Today is Wagner’s 200th birthday! Above, the immolation scene and finale from Götterdämmerung (click to enlarge); below, Anne Evans’s legendary performance  at Bayreuth in 1992.

Related article: Operas as graphic novels

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Wagner and Eros

Wagner’s obsession with sexuality prefigured the composition of operas such as Tannhäuser, Die Walküre, Tristan und Isolde, and Parsifal. Daring to represent erotic stimulation, passionate ecstasy, and the torment of sexual desire, Wagner sparked intense reactions from figures like Baudelaire, Clara Schumann, Nietzsche, and Nordau, whose verbal tributes and censures disclose what was transmitted when music represented sex.

Wagner himself saw the cultivation of an erotic high style as central to his art, especially after devising an anti-philosophical response to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of sexual love. A reluctant eroticist, Wagner masked his personal compulsion to cross-dress in pink satin and drench himself in rose perfumes while simultaneously incorporating his silk fetish and love of floral scents into his librettos. His affection for dominant females and surprising regard for homosexual love likewise enable some striking portraits in his operas.

In the end, Wagner’s achievement was to have fashioned an oeuvre which explored his sexual yearnings as much as it conveyed—as never before—how music could act on erotic impulse.

This according to Wagner and the erotic impulse by Laurence Dreyfus (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010). Below, Kirsten Flagstad’s historic recording of the Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde.

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Wagner and Darwin

Darwin’s On the origin of species and Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, both completed in 1859, share an articulation of the shift from one worldview to another: from change as a repetitive circular movement to development as a cyclic process. Darwin’s treatise is more than a scientific theory—it is an aesthetic account of the wonders and beauty of nature. Wagner’s opera is more than a subjective work of art—it clearly reflects dimensions of evolution akin to scientific explanations of the phenomenon.

This according to “Darwin and Wagner: Evolution and aesthetic appreciation” by Edvin Østergaard (The journal of aesthetic education XLV/2 [summer 2011] pp. 83-108). Below, the unresolved harmonic tensions of the opera’s prelude create (in Østergaard’s words) a feeling of ongoingness, unfinishedness, and incertitude in a performance by Zubin Mehta and the Bayerisches Staatsorchester.

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Wagner and Buddhism

Scholars have long known that Wagner had a deep and lasting interest in Buddhism; less known are the specific insights garnered from Buddhism that are manifested in Parsifal. The key to understanding this connection is the enigmatic figure of Kundry.

Contrary to the common interpretation of Kundry as the incarnation of the will, and in light of Wagner’s admiration for Schopenhauer, she may be seen as the personification of desire. Desiring, which is different from wanting, is a fundamental aspect of Buddhism. As Buddha explained in his very first sermon, desire is the cause of suffering (dukkha). Buddhist teaching holds that suffering can only be overcome when desire is vanquished.

Kundry appears in three forms in Parsifal; these correspond to the three forms of desire in Buddhism. This interpretation aligns the work’s Christian, pagan, and Buddhist symbolism as an expression of the inner way that is shared by all who tread the path of religious mysticism.

This according to “Kundry: The personification of the role of desire in the holy life” by Cittasamvaro (Phra Pandit) (Wagnerspectrum III/2 [2007] pp. 97–114). Above, Christa Ludwig as Kundry; below, Jordanka Derilova in the role.

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