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.


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London celebrates design & ideology with new biennale

London is in the midst of quite a creative moment. The Design Museum is soon to open in the £83m conversion of the former Commonwealth Institute in Kensington, and the V&A has announced plans for a second museum of visual culture in east London’s Olympicopolis at the south end of the Olympic Park where there will also be a Sadler’s Wells and Washington DC’s Smithsonian outposts.

But before all this kicks off, the city will experience its first Design Biennale which will join forces with the annual London Design Festival. Alongside the festival, the biennale will aim to unite a global community of designers, artists, architects, as well as design historians and theorists for a celebration of visual culture.

John Sorrell, co-founder of the festival and biennale says, ‘If you believe in design you know it can make the world a better place, and I say the more international design dialogue the better.’

But do we really need two design festivals at the same time? The two, we are told, will function on very different levels and complement one another. Whereas the festival is about showcasing new works of design and site-specific installation work, the biennale will be more about creative thinking, speculative design, theory, ideology.

‘The unique combination of these two events will offer a world wide window on design,’ says Sorrel.

Working under the title Utopia by Design – a nod to the 500th anniversary of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, and looking at London both as platform and subject – the biennale will focus on talks, education and conversations thus giving substance to the work on display. The biennale will work on pushing ideas rather than objects. This is an intriguing proposition that could be a template for other global festivals as such.

Should be exciting to see.

Read our highlights from LDF 2015 here

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London Design Museum to relocate with new ambitions

The Design Museum has announced it will open in its new home in west London on 24 November 2016. The building in Kensington overlooks Holland Park and is the result of a £83m transformation of the 1960s listed former Commonwealth Institute building.

The new space is three times the size of the current Bermondsey site. The three floors will house three galleries, a library and learning centre, two events spaces, an auditorium for talks and seminars, a café, restaurant, shop, film studio and offices. It promises to be a small scale institution dedicated to design.

When the Design Museum originally opened in 1989, London was a very different place. Discussions on design were in their infancy, even here in the capital city. The brainchild of Sir Terrance Conran and Stephen Bayley, the Design Museum of the 1980s was hugely radical. It elevated the status of design to be (almost) on par with fine art, and initiated a much needed discourse on the subject. Soon a few universities began teaching Design History as an undergraduate course, which incidentally is where I ended up. These were exciting times.

Much has changed since then, not just in London but throughout the country. There is a higher awareness of design amongst the general public helped by retail outlets like Ikea. Copies of mid-modern classics, mostly terrible, can now be purchased on most high streets, and many of these pioneering designers are now household names.

So what is the role of a Design Museum in a world where design is seemingly everywhere? To start with, the new premise will allow for more diverse ways of communication. The directors are thus planning a challenging programme that encourages new work and new thinking. The museum director Deyan Sudjic wants the space to act as a bridge between the V&A and the Science Museum – both only a stone-throw-away.

Encouragingly, the V&A has in the last decade or so successfully shed its dusty association with ‘old art’ to be a hugely dynamic space running some inspired exhibitions that challenge the separation of the various art and design groups and ‘isms’.

This fantastic building has become a hang-out for families on weekends, the likes of me can be spotted during the week tapping away on the laptop in the glorious dinning rooms, or outside in the sunny courtyard, and on some Fridays when it keeps its doors open late, the V&A transforms into a vibrant social space.

Here you can appreciate the Italian renaissance art, admire Asian pottery, be dazzled by crown jewels and experience the avant-garde world of Alexander McQueen in a highly interactive digital space all in one afternoon. The V&A encourages curiosity – it never force-feeds the viewer and this is a rare trait amongst often sterile art institutions.

So, it will be interesting to see how the Design Museum will evolve in its new home, and what it can offer that is an alternative to the V&A. Sudjic promises a more interactive space saying, ‘the touring, digital and publications programme will take the message around the world.’ He also says the museum ‘will nurture new generations of designers and continue its history of recognising and supporting emerging design talent.’

The Design Museum’s inaugural exhibition gives the impression they’re on the right track. Fear and Love: Reactions to a Complex World, features a series of newly commissioned installations, promising to be an insight into our hopes and doubts about the pace and impact of change.

Nargess Shahmanesh Banks

Read reviews of some of the more intriguing V&A recent exhibitions: What is Luxury?, Alexander McQueenRussian Avant-Guard Theatre: War, Revolution and Design, 1913-1933Double Space for BMW – Precision and Poetry in Motion.

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Barber & Osgerby interpret BMW design

‘Cars today are almost the exact equivalent of the great Gothic cathedrals; I mean the supreme creation of an era, conceived with passion by unknown artists, and consumed in image if not in usage by a whole population which appropriates them as a purely magical object,’ the philosopher Roland Barthes wrote in 1957. Earlier this week the contemporary motor car met with great religious art, with a provocative dialogue emerging between the past and the present.

Edward Barber and Jay Osgerby’s installation for the London Design Festival, Double Space for BMW – Precision and Poetry in Motion, sees a couple of giant mirrored silver structures suspend in the centre of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Raphael Gallery. Their choreographed movement- flat on one side, curved on the other – distorts our view of the seven surviving designs for tapestries in the Sistine Chapel.

The mirrors heighten the scale of the room, and it is dimly lit for added visual drama. As you stand, small, almost insignificant beneath, looking up as you would in the Sistine Chapel, you hear a conversation taking place between the grandeur of the Renaissance artwork and this contemporary structure.

Engineering firm Arup built the structure on site in just over a week. The artwork here is priceless and on loan from the Queen. Known as ‘cartoons’, the painted designs were commissioned by Pope Leo X in 1515, created to guide weavers. Later Charles I purchased them and they have been with the V&A since 1865.

We caught up with Adrian Van Hooydonk, director of BMW design. Standing beneath this overwhelming structure he jokes that one of the 4,000 or so screws that hold it together came loose on completion. All they could hear was its rattling sound so a brave engineer was sent up high and inside the mirrors to locate this.

The project was sponsored by BMW, the idea being for Barber and Osgerby to interpret the design values of the carmaker. ‘I admire Ed and Jay’s work for its clarity, simplicity, openness and I wanted to work with them for years,’ says Van Hooydonk. He invited the duo to Munich to see the process of car design and meet Vision Future Luxury, the company’s latest concept car that expresses the future design philosophy.

He says: ’We told them a car isn’t a static object; it is about expressing movement, reflecting its environment. We stayed up for hours talking and discussing ideas but then we left it open for their own interpretation. Working with them also helped us distil the core values of our design philosophy.’

BMW works with designers from outside the automotive world for their fresh interpretations. Van Hooydonk says the fact that the two are not rooted in car design allows them to work with their own semantics and references. Their architectural thinking also led to a new and dynamic exploration of an existing space.

Barber and Osgerby have long been inspired by cars, planes and boats; fascinated with movement, precision and speed.‘Growing up in the 70s, BMW was absolutely my favourite car due to its strong identity,’ says Barber enthusiastically.

From the start Osgerby felt that the project needed to be grand in scale. He says they wanted to create something which is ‘awesome in the old sense of the word, that it changes your perception of space and it does something very physical to you. ’They wanted to give something back to the Raphael Gallery to make it even more of a magical room.

The end result, they felt, needed to oppose our daily normal view of life – be something that turns it on its head. And for anyone who’s attempted a hand stand as an adult, there is nothing quite as liberating as seeing the world turn on its head. It is addictive.

You can tell Van Hooydonk is delighted with the final design. ‘I loved their idea which is about the fascination with movement; it is showing movement, precision, the poetry of cars reflecting life,’ he says as Barber adds: ‘Our architectural work is concerned with experience and how people behave in that space…this installation ignores all of that and just says it is what it is.’

Double Space for BMW – Precision and Poetry in Motion will remain on display beyond the London Design Festival, until 24 October.

Nargess Banks

Read highlights from previous London Design Festivals here.
Read our previous reports on BMW here.

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