Opera: Passion, Power and Politics at the V&A
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics at the Victoria and Albert Museum is something new: this is the first time that a large-scale institutional exhibition has been dedicated to the art form, and the event marks the V&A’s first collaboration with the Royal Opera House. It is also the first exhibition to be shown in the museum’s brand new wing, marking a milestone of achievement for this ever-expanding institution.
Told through the lens of seven operatic premieres in seven cities, Opera: Passion, Power and Politics gives a history of Europe as much as a history of opera. The curators have done a brilliant job of explaining and demonstrating how integral opera was to the life of so many in these cities, and how its changing fashions and innovations capture the spirit of the age. In 1860s Paris, for example, Napoleon was reimagining the city with an opera house at the centre of his ambitious plans, while Wagner’s radical new approach to the art form polarised audiences in the French capital.
Inevitably, focusing on only seven cities and operas does mean that a number of key operatic (and historical) developments are missed out. As a snapshot of opera across the ages, however, the show works remarkably well.
As well as the expected manuscripts, posters and costumes, the exhibition also features some exciting visual installations, including a mechanised stage complete with moving waves, mermaids and ships, imaginatively inspired by Handel’s Rinaldo. As well as offering a comprehensive overview, the curators evidently want visitors to get a feel for the kind of opera being premiered during each highlighted period. Visitors can experience Opera: Passion, Power and Politics in as much or as little depth as they choose, and that can only be a good thing.
Like some of the V&A’s other highly successful shows, the exhibition is accompanied by a soundtrack played through headphones that changes as you travel past the exhibits. The well-chosen and high-quality recordings are essential to experiencing the displays, bringing them to life and helping visitors to immerse themselves in the musical and political world of each era.
Featured Image: Ensemble in Spaceship
at the dress rehearsal of Einstein on the Beach, Philip Glass, 2013
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is at the V&A from 30th September 2017 until 25th February 2018. For further information or to book visit the V&A website here.