Tag Archives: Tannhäuser

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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Filed under Opera, Performers, Romantic era

Caricature

Caricature is a type of iconography that involves distorting the features of recognizable people to exaggerate some aspect of their demeanor.

Opinions differ regarding the term’s applicability to other than real-life subjects; for example, Walt Disney considered his animated animals to be caricatures because in creating them he blended animal features with human ones, an inversion of the practice of caricaturing people by merging their features with those of animals.

In the caricature reproduced above by Albert Douat (1847–92, signed with the pseudonym J. Blass), Liszt consoles Wagner over the Parisian reception of Tannhäuser in 1861 and Lohengrin in 1891; both productions were disrupted by elements hostile to the composer. Liszt’s imposing stature and paternal attitude—particularly apt since by the time the drawing was produced he was Wagner’s father-in-law—contrasts with the dejected, little-boy look of the creator of Gesamtkunstwerk.

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Filed under Humor, Iconography, Reception, Romantic era