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(c) Matthias Schaller

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics at the V&A

23 January 2018 Suzanne Frost

It's never just entertainment! The V&A explores the cultural, social and political significance of a genre.

Opera - a sensory, theatrical, musical, emotional experience. Notoriously difficult to analyse, review or describe. With the exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics, the V&A in collaboration with The Royal Opera House, are exploring 400 years of operatic history from the genre’s origins in Renaissance Italy to the present day. Very cleverly, the exhibition breaks down this vast subject spanning centuries into easily digestible snippets. Since opera is originally an Italian invention, let’s describe the circuit set up as a pizza cut into 7 slices, each one dedicated to an important historic world premiere and its social, political and cultural significance. A sensory audio guide not so much leads visitors through but accompanies the exhibition with the corresponding music.
 
The first room takes the visitor back in time to decadent Venice during the Renaissance. The city is filled with gamblers and high-class courtesans with an insatiable thirst for entertainment. Aristocrats like to show off their wealth by staging operas in private settings, inventing an entirely new genre that combines the elements of story, music, singing and staging in one. Claudio Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea from 1642 is the genre-defining first example, also marking another departure: for the first time, the subject matter is an historical event rather than a religious or mystery play that had dominated theatres till now.


The Viola da Gamba Musician, Bernardo Strozzi 1630-40, (c) Gemaldegalerie Dresden 2017
 

The second room takes us to London in 1711 and the premiere of Georg Frideric Handel’s Rinaldo. Under Queen Anne, the city enjoys an era of prosperity, stability and peace, something that becomes audible in the steady basso continuo and the uplifting mood of baroque music. London emerges as a global player on the world stage. Business and international trade flourish. So do the city’s many theatres where rich aristocrats and entrepreneurs seek enjoyment and distraction. The booming global trade brings an influx of international influences and so it is no surprise that the German composer Handel is able to take the city by storm with his Italian style opera. Complex stage machinery and exciting visuals delight the London audience and the exhibition reconstructs a set from the Queen’s Theatre Haymarket circa 1705, where waves are created by rotating spiral columns and mermaids are pulled by trolleys across the stage. Interestingly, even back then the British press feared the growing European influence on their theatre in a historic article whose almost exact phrasing could be from a current newspaper today.


(c) Victoria &Albert Museum, London
 
In 1786, Vienna was the beating heart of Europe and the capital of culture. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro forms the example for the age of enlightenment. Audiences craved for something more human and authentic; deeper characterisation and psychology. And they were interested in stories from different social backgrounds and classes, shifting the focus away from the aristocracy. On the audio guide, Sir Antonio Pappano, music director of the Royal Opera House, gives a fascinating insight into the score and libretto and an original piece of Mozart’s handwritten composition is on display.


(c) Victoria &Albert Museum, London
 
1842 was a year of unrest and revolution all over Europe. Italy was under Austrian occupation and the big opera house La Scala in Milan served not just as a music venue but subversive political meetings were held in the boxes during performances. Verdi’s Nabucco is a prime example of the power of the chorus, of voices expressing themselves in unison. The famous chorus of the prisoners ‘Va pensiero’ is to this day an alternative anthem of Italy, a symbol of unification and the revolutionary energy of the collective. With this information, it becomes obvious why opera is such an important part of the Italian identity.
 
Paris is the international capital of culture in 1861. Architect General Haussmann is revamping the entire city in an attempt for radical modernisation and growth, also building the famous Opera Garnier. Here, the premiere of Richard Wagner’s Tannhauser causes a scandal. In every aspect of life, a war is fought between conservative traditionalist and a young generation full of new and modern ideas. Wagner’s music isn’t popular at first but his central idea of opera as a Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, will change the face of opera forever.

 
(c) Victoria &Albert Museum, London

In 1905, Dresden is the open liberal city that isn’t afraid to stage Richard Strauss’ opera Salome that has been previously refused in Vienna and London because of its erotic subtext. At the turn of the century, the women’s movement and early feminism take up speed, Freud’s theories about psychology and sexuality are popular and Strauss’ opera leads to an international obsession with the biblical anti-heroine named as ‘salomania’ in the press.
 
The next room takes a look at Russian opera and uses Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Minsk as an example how arts and politics collide. The opera about an unhappily married woman who turns to murdering her husband and father in law didn’t comply with the Soviet ideals of femininity. A condemning press article, rumoured to be written by Stalin himself, leads to a general denunciation and censorship of the composer by the Communist Party.


(c) Victoria &Albert Museum, London
 
A final installation then opens up the future of opera in the 21 century and how the genre now tackles current issues of gender and race, religion, homosexuality, science, emigration and conflict.
 
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is a fascinating journey through history. Through a collection of costumes, artefacts, paintings, posters and historical press clippings the exhibition makes visible the irrefutable links between art and the time its created in, how societal, historical and political context and developments influence artists and how incredibly important the opera was as a place for society to meet, to engage with each other and define the ultimate hopes and aspirations of their respective era.
 
 
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is at the Victoria & Albert Museum until 25 February. Tickets £15-19.
 
 
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