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! Below, the historic production.