YFH RECOMMENDS: OPERA: PASSION, POWER & POLITICS
The first exhibition to be held at the V&A’s new Sainsbury Gallery is a musical and visual tour de force
We learn about 400 years of European opera, with the V& A’s new, ambitious, exhibition.
Today, we might regard opera as being a rather elitist art form, although that perception is one that various theatres and companies are trying to overcome, through outreach and the provision of more affordable tickets. It has certainly always suffered from certain connotations amongst some both in the community and in the press, despite its long history.
Now, however, the V&A Museum in London is attempting to make us think anew about opera, with its major exhibition, the first to be held at its brand-new Sainsbury Gallery in South Kensington. Running until 25 February next year, the exhibition takes what is described as a ‘vivid and immersive journey through nearly 400 years of opera’, looking at the passion displayed in operatic productions, but also political aspects of opera.
Attempting to show how social, political, artistic and economic factors interact with elements from the history of opera, the exhibition aims to tell a story not only of European opera, but of European history over the centuries. It focuses on seven operatic premieres in seven cities, immersing visitors in aspects of operatic history, from its roots in Renaissance Italy, to the present day. The cities focused on are Venice, London, Vienna, Milan, Paris, Dresden and St Petersburg, with the premieres taking place between 1642 and 1934. The London premiere looked at is that of Handel’s Rinaldo, from 1711, whose complex staging was regarded as sensational at the time. It isused to depict the tension between the increasingly popular European-inspired opera, and traditional theatre, but also looks at the contemporary trend for castrato singers, and how opera influenced art (Hogarth made an engraving of crowds attended the opera, as Shakespeare’s plays were wheeled away, thus highlighting how fashions were deemed to be changing).
The exhibition takes a multi-visual form: yes, there are artefacts – over 300 of them, many sourced from overseas – but there is also digital footage of operatic performances. There are some great historical objects here – from Salvador Dali’s costume design for a 1949 production of Salome; Manet’s painting Music in the Tuileries Gardens (which contextualises Wagner’s approach to music in 1860s Paris); and costume designs and set models for the premiere of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which took place in St Petersburg in 1934. There are musical instruments, scores, advertising materials – elements of productions from history and from the present day.
And what if you feel the need for a bit of the music itself, while you wander round the exhibition, held in one of Europe’s largest exhibition spaces? Well, this is catered for: in fact, you wear headphones as you walk, with operatic performances
The London premiere looked at is that of Handel’s Rinaldo, from 1711, whose complex staging was regarded as sensational at the time
playing, and changing as you explore both cities and objects, creating ‘an evocative and fully immersive sound experience’ (those who visited the V&A’s previous Pink Floyd exhibition will be familiar with this approach). In addition, you can hear the Royal Opera Chorus singing part of Verdi’s Nabucco, as part of a 360- degree sound installation. There is Shostakovitch playing the piano; and a dramatic scene from Salome, where the room, as well as the heroine’s body, turns red, as though with blood!
Perhaps due to the size of the new exhibition space, it can all be a bit overwhelming: we’d suggest taking your time, and enjoy the minutiae of what’s on offer, rather than trying to take in the whole picture immediately. There is so much to look at and explore that you will need to free up a couple of hours – given the 400-year history covered here, you can’t hope to do the exhibition justice by trying to rush round it. Instead, lose yourself in the music.
What the exhibition really succeeds in doing is showing that opera is not just a standalone art form; like other forms of art, it has reflected wider tensions, and tells us much about our own history – from the history of trade and commerce in early 18th century London, to the burgeoning women’s rights movements across fin- desiècle Europe, and Stalinist policies and censorship in 20th century Russia. Whether or not you’re an opera buff, if you’re interested in the history of Europe and in political history, you’ll find much to make you think here.
Below: Dresden Suburb Erich Heckel (1883–1970) Oil on canvas Above: Ensemble in ‘Spaceship’ at the dress rehearsal of Einstein on the Beach Philip Glass in collaboration Robert Wilson Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
‘Milano’ from the series Fratelli dItalia 2005–2016
Top left: Barbara Hannigan in Written on Skin Middle right: Nadja Michael as Salome Royal Opera House, London, 2008 ROH All other images on this page: Opera: Passion, Power and Politics installation at the V&A Museum