Exhibition – Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

Opera requires gauze to be wrapped around the imagination. It is hoped that the power of music and that most versatile of all instruments, the human voice, helped along by the magic of lighting and design could help penetrate that gauze. So, it was with some trepidation that I went along to the preview of ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ at the Victoria and Albert museum in London. How do they convey that artful magic, which depends on so many improbables to work, and in a museum setting? The V&A has done just that and more.

Created in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, this is a vivid and immersive journey through 400 years of European operatic history, focusing on its key moments from its roots in Renaissance Italy. Senior curator Kate Bailey has combined décor, costumes, artefacts, paintings, drawings, videos and above all cleverly-chosen excerpts from seven operas symbolising each epoch which appear in our earphones seemingly from the ether as the visitor walks through the years, to evoke the magic that is opera. The synchronisation of sound and our movement through the galleries is truly astounding.

We begin in Venice, the birthplace of opera with Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea. The date, 1642. One of the first pieces that can be called an opera with the angelic voices of Catherine Bott and Ann Sofie von Otter, literally floating between the two earphones. You have to read the clearly presented synopsis on the wall to remember that they are singing of the murderous emperor Nero. A painting by Bernardo Strozzi of singer and composer Barbara Strozzi as a courtesan hints at the parallel world of sex and music, a theme reiterated throughout the exhibition.

London 1711 follows, with Handel’s Ronaldo dedicated to the art loving queen Ann. Unlucky with children – she lost all seventeen. With the beautiful countertenor voice of David Daniels flowing into our ears, we are led to the tiny picture of Farinelli, castrated before puberty to maintain his fresh boyish voice, on a brooch ready to adorn the chest of some society lady. We learn that, apparently, castrati were popular with women.

We jump to Mozart’s Vienna of 1786 on the eve of the French Revolution. With the Marriage of Figaro, Mozart was thumping his large nose, as pictured by Ernest Thelott, at the aristocracy. Lorenzo Di Ponte’s libretto, based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ play, shows servants Figaro and Suzanna outmanoeuvring the randy Count. Possibly the most perfect of operas is being sung on the wall as I look over the sumptuous costumes worn by Susanna and the Countess and wonder how on earth they could sing with all that weight on their chest.

Rebellion reappears in Milan half a century later with Verdi’s Nabucco, premiered in 1842. The chorus of the Hebrew slaves became the unofficial national anthem of the Risorgimento which led to the unification of Italy. The powerful angelic voice of Maria Callas, while I walk beneath photographs of the ceilings of many opera houses in Italy, points to the centrality of opera in popular culture there.

Wagner’s Tannhaüser of 1861 was being feted, and reviled, in the Paris of the Second Empire where, in the name of cleaning up the slums, Baron Haussmann had razed the rebellious quarters of the city to the ground, building wide boulevards which made the movements of the troops much easier. Sadly for the emperor, ten years later Paris revolted again. Multiple videos show four interpretations of the erotic ballet scene an der Venusberg, brilliantly synchronised as if they all followed the same tempo.

A corridor lined with paintings by the German expressionist group Die Brücke (Kirchner, Heckel and Schmidt-Rottlulf) lead us to the Dresden of 1905 with Richard Straus’s modernist opera Salome. The curators present this opera as on the road to the emancipation of women. There on a huge screen Nadja Michael’s Salome, covered in blood is passionately kissing the torso-deprived head of John the Baptist, singing, gyrating to Straus’s erotic music with clear oriental overtones. Sex and violence – another theme of the show. Woman as femme-fatal in a literal sense. Or rather in this case, a teenage crush gone awry. It is a relief to take my eye off the gory video and rest it on the designs for Salome by the likes of the American Lois Fuller, a pioneer of modern dance, the surrealist Salvador Dali and fashion designer Versace.

The next corridor pays homage to pioneering women through text and image – Clara Zetkin and Rosa Luxemburg who organised the first International Women’s day in 1911, and German artist Käthe Kollwitz who depicted the hardships of working class women. This leads to Leningrad of 1934 (the curators insist on calling the city St Petersburg) where we see Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, wildly acclaimed until Stalin saw it and walked out on the last act writing an anonymous article in Pravda calling it muddle instead of music.

A film showing the young Shostakovich playing on the piano is placed in a patio whose entrance is criss-crossed by red tape – symbolic with a picture of Stalin scowling down from above on all of us. Soprano Galina Vishnevskaya singing the aria lamenting her loveless, sex-less life brings tears to my eyes and, like the first room, I have difficulty leaving. This is an opera on sexual liberation far superior to Salome.

The final room reveals footage of some of the iconic twentieth-century operas, projected on its four walls simultaneously, giving a feeling of being immersed. They included George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht, and John Adam’s Death of Kinghoffer. The nun’s chorus scene from Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues des Carmélites is interrupted with the guillotine cutting off their heads, one by one – maybe a bit too much decapitation in one show. And a favourite, Barbara Hannigan singing in George Benjamin’s Written on Skin. Opera alive and well. And singing.

Walking through this maze of wonder, I am made to feel alone with the music of the past and present, enveloped by the experience. This is the press preview, but what happens when the doors are opened to the public? Unless the numbers are limited it would be difficult to get close enough to read the clues so essential to the magical journey. And to feel totally engaged. To rip out the gauze. But I guess the V&A will not let this fantastic effort go to waste.

Mohsen Shahmanesh 

‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’, opened at the V&A yesterday as the first exhibition to use the new Sainsbury Gallery. It will be on show until 27 February 2018. Take a look at the events surrounding the exhibition here.


Design Talks | The Textile Building | 29a Chatham Place | London | E9 6FJ | UK
Design Talks is published by Spinach Design
All rights and labelled images are covered by ©