Grace Bumbry: Black Venus, White Bayreuth, Race, Sexuality And Wagner

Written By The Wagnerian on Tuesday, 13 October 2020 | 4:54:00 pm

Grace Bumbry as Venus in Wagner's "Tannhäuser"

Originally published in German Studies Review, 2012. Written by Kira Thurman, assistant professor of German and history at the University of Michigan.


Black Venus, White Bayreuth: Race, Sexuality, and the Depoliticization of Wagner in Postwar West Germany

Abstract: 
African American soprano Grace Bumbry sparked controversy in West Germany when she became the frst black musician to sing at the Bayreuth Festival Opera House in July 1961. This article demonstrates how race served two separate functions for the Bayreuth Opera Festival and its postwar audience. For opera director Wieland Wagner, hiring a black singer was part of a larger agenda to sever Bayreuth’s ties from its most recent and turbulent past. German audiences discussing this historical moment, however, expressed concern that protestors of this performance were preventing Germans from moving forward into a new, democratic, and racially accepting Germany.


When the Bayreuth Festival Opera House began receiving letters warning them that the composer Richard Wagner would soon “turn in his grave,” they knew they had a problem. When hundreds of letters to the editor, opinion pieces, and news briefs fooded the German media, the Bayreuth administration realized they were witnessing the makings of a national scandal: on July 23, 1961, American soprano Grace Bumbry became the first black singer to appear at the Bayreuth Festival, singing the role of Venus from Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser

The event created an uproar, and everyone from revered music critics to housewives in the Rhineland squabbled about the significance of Bumbry’s debut in the hallowed halls of Bayreuth. While music
critics debated the virtues of “New Bayreuth” director Wieland Wagner’s modernist vision, many editorials also chided those who protested the performance by a black singer. One theme that remained consistent throughout the month of July was that Germans were discussing this musical event within a national context.


Race served two separate yet equally fascinating functions for the Bayreuth OperaFestival and its audience in the summer of 1961. For Wieland Wagner, opera director of the Bayreuth Festival and the grandson of Richard Wagner, hiring a black singer was part of a larger agenda to sever Bayreuth’s ties from its most recent and turbulent past and ensure its preservation in the future. Although Wieland vigorously denied that he had hired Grace Bumbry to perform as Venus solely because of her race, this article suggests otherwise. African American soprano Grace Bumbry’s blackness was essential to his production of Richard Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser, and to his aesthetic and political strategy to separate Bayreuth from its recent Nazi legacy.West German audiences discussing this historical moment, on the other hand, also practised a different kind of Vergangenheitsbewältigung or coming to terms with the past, expressing concern that protestors of this performance were preventing Germany from moving forward into a new, democratic, and consequently racially accepting Germany. Both the production and the reception of the Bayreuth FestivalOpera House’s staging of Tannhäuser reveal new and sophisticated ways in which race coloured different processes of Vergangenheitsbewältigung in postwar West Germany.