As soon as I found out about the Opera: Passion, Power and Politics exhibition at the V&A I knew I wanted to go. So did my auntie, who loves opera, so I booked tickets for her visit in October – not long after the exhibition opened in the new Sainsbury Wing.
Rather than covering every single thing to do with the history of opera, the exhibition organisers have selected seven key dates and places in the history of this comparatively modern art form, and used them as pegs on which to hang a broad history of opera.
Venice is traditionally regarded as the home of opera. During the seventeenth century, the importance of the city in international trade was in decline, but it was still a key centre for culture. With no Royal Court and a relatively lax attitude, the new art form was able to grow. The key work of this section was Claude Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione Di Poppea, the first public opera (I’ve seen his earlier L’Orfeo, but that was privately performed). It was based on historical events.
By this time London was important on the world stage, having recently been rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666. In 1689, Henry Purcell composed Dido and Aeneas, while Handel later wrote Rinaldo. A theatre opened in the Haymarket, specifically showing opera, though this blatant display of Italian influences on the English stage did not impress many critics. The Royal Opera House in Covent Garden opened in 1732.
Like the other cities, Vienna was enjoying a golden era of creativity during this period, when Mozart penned Le Nozze di Figaro. His opera was revolutionary in the sense that it brought servants to the fore.
The opera house La Scala opened in Milan around this time, when Verdi composed Nabucco. Based on a biblical story, it nevertheless struck a chord with many Italians who sought to see their country united (which happened in 1861). ‘Va, pensiero’ became an unofficial Italian anthem and is still sung as such today.
It seems to be a pattern that the upsurgence of opera in a particular city leads to the building of a new opera house: this did happen in Paris. This section focused on Wagner and his revolutionary opera Tannhauser. Wagner believed in the idea of opera as total work of art, and wrote all his libretti himself. He believed that the music should form one continuous melody, rather than being made up of separate arias and works.
This period is exemplified by Richard Strauss’ Salome, a one-act opera inspired by Oscar Wilde’s play. It tapped into contemporary ideas around the changing role of women.
Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk shocked contemporary audiences with its depiction of female sexuality. At first acclaimed as a composer for ordinary people, Shostakovich was later accused of anti-Soviet behaviour, and Lady Macbeth was banned. 1934 was an important year in Russia because it marked the end of artistic freedom and the imposition of Socialist Realism.
The exhibition ends with a ‘world’ section in which you can see video clips from all over the world.
The exhibition has some fascinating artefacts on display: tableware used by Venetian nobility, busts of notable composers, original drawings by Aubrey Beardsley, Soviet posters advertising Shostakovich’s work. I would have liked to see more costumes, but the ones they had were impressive, including a dress covered in stars. There was a beautiful selection of items that would have been worn by fashionable Parisian opera goers, including a lace mantilla, opera glasses, and a collapsible top hat for the gentleman opera goer.
The exhibition does miss quite a bit out: I was sorry not to see more about my own favourite, Puccini. However, with such a big subject to cover, it does do a good job of exploring the history in an accessible way without overwhelming with information.