Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is the V&A’s latest big exhibition. These keywords might underlie the genre itself but not necessarily the exhibition. Its draw is the worlds of the different periods that are brought to life and form the context of the seven operas that are presented. Ground-breaking works in the history of opera – from Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea in Venice in 1643 to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in Leningrad in 1934. In between we stop at Handel’s Rinaldo in London, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro in Vienna, Verdi’s Nabucco in Milan, Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Paris and Strauss’ Salomé in Dresden.
The visitor steps into a dimly lit passage way that introduces him/her to the Venice of the 17th century. A buzzing city by the sea, where the trade market is flourishing and rich merchants and sailors seek pleasure and entertainment alike. One of them is the emerging opera. Public opera houses not only showed off the owners’ wealth but were also a profitable business. The city’s carnival already provided a good ground for entertainment and an eager audience. Pictures, instruments, costumes, accessories, scores, maps, letters and stories bring time and place to life. For example that there was a blurry line between female singers/performers and courtesans, and paitings often showed musicians with well-shaped bosoms as in the picture The Viola da Gamba Musician.
Handel’s London of 1711 shines with an enchanting replica of Italian stagecraft that shows a scene from Rinaldo: Il Vostro Maggio in which a ship crosses a stormy sea inhabited by mermaids. Rolling waves, changing light moods and moving clouds give the perfect illusion of the journey.
An interesting note is that theatres often worked with retired sailors, who were experts in handling the ropes that are a vital part of the rigging system backstage. Alongside we are introduced to influential people of the time such as Queen Anne, who supported the art. We also learn what controversies the Italian-style opera caused in London and why the story of Rinaldo resonated with its audience.
Although opera is now regarded as highbrow, in Mozart’s days it was less so. Of course, it might not have been an entertainment of the masses as we understand it today, but back then it was part of popular culture as Mozart makes clear in his writing. After the success of his Le Nozze di Figaro in Vienna in 1786, he visits Prague and remarks that the songs of his opera are just sung everywhere.
The exciting thing about this exhibition is that it allows you to discover the periods and explore the relationships between the operas and their times and find out why they were so revolutionary – an aspect we nowadays don’t associate with this art form. It gives a cunning insight into social history, for example when the servants in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro receive the same dramatic value as their masters rather than just being comic figures. Verdi’s Nabucco in Milan in 1842 captures the Italians’ desire for independence while striving for national identity and unity. Strauss’ Salome, which premiered in Dresden in 1905, presents a woman with her sexuality, which shocked the public. Freud’s occupation with hysteria and psychology made headlines at that time. Almost 30 years later in Leningrad, a woman’s sexual desires are still a hot topic in Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk. However, despite the new image and emancipation that women experienced in the 1920s, the fact that the main character kills a few men along the way to be with her lover did not sit comfortably with Stalin’s image of the Soviet Union that he wanted to create and the opera was banned.
In addition to the wider picture, the exhibition also positions the operas in the context of their composers’ lives. Its strength is also that it does not burden you with mountains of information but offers short and easily digestible notes on the wall – like a scrap book, where the bullet points are spelled out. That refers to the time as well as to the operas, where it is explained why this opera is so significant.
There’s music, too, of course. What would opera be without it? It comes through headphones. Yet it’s hard to take in all the fascinating exhibits while listening to music, if you are not familiar with the subject as in my case. Opera admittedly does not belong to my pastimes, so the music is only sampled in short extracts.
Nevertheless, the exhibition is highly recommendable as it makes opera not only accessible to an opera ignoramus like me, but apparently also appeals to connoisseurs. So, you don’t need to be an opera expert, or even a fan of the art form, to appreciate this exhibition, which itself has the grandeur of an opera.
It was curated by Kate Bailey and realised in collaboration with the Royal Opera House.
The exhibition is on until 25 February 2018.
By Sabine Schereck