The first ex­hi­bi­tion to be held at the V&A’s new Sains­bury Gallery is a mu­si­cal and vis­ual tour de force

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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

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