This fall, the story of nearly four centuries of opera is being told at the Victoria and Albert Museum, sponsored by Société Generale. In collaboration with the Royal Opera House, “Opera: Passion, Power and Politics” (on view through February 25, 2018) inaugurates the museum’s Sainsbury Gallery and takes visitors through seven operatic premieres in cities throughout Europe— starting with Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea in 1642 in Venice and ending with Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1934 in St. Petersburg and a section showing how opera has become a contemporary global passion. Kate Bailey shared with Whitewaller how the immersive, sprawling exhibition featuring innovative sound technology and design came together.
WHITEWALLER: What was the starting point for the exhibition? How did the V&A connect with the Royal Opera House?
KATE BAILEY: The idea of creating an exhibition about opera first came about in 2012. Kasper Holten was the newly appointed director of opera at the ROH, and Martin Roth had recently taken up post as director of the V&A. We held a big brainstorm session between the ROH and the V&A to explore possibilities and discover how we could bring together our mutual expertise and resources to create a major touring exhibition about opera, the first of its kind.
WW: How did you arrive at telling the story over seven premieres in seven European cities?
KB: A team of creative minds from ROH and V&A decided that a great way into the subject would be to focus on seven opera premieres in seven cities, showing how the creation of a new opera reflects the creative pulse of the city in which it is created. The groundbreaking operas in the exhibition are the lens to looking at the social, political, and cultural lives of cities but also reflect shifts in the development of opera.
WW: Can you tell us a bit about the first premiere chosen, Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea in 1642 in Venice? How does it represent the start of opera and the beginning of its evolution?
KB: Opera began as private court entertainment in Italy. It was really important that the first opera in the exhibition reflects how opera moves from the private to the public realm and speaks to cities. It is fascinating to see how Venice, the international freethinking city, home of carnival, gives birth to the genre of opera, the first multimedia entertainment. The first impresarios created opera in new theaters, bringing together story, music, design, and performance in spectacular productions for new audiences.
WW: Who were some of the visual artists of note who interacted with their contemporaries in the medium of opera?
KB: In Venice, artists like Bernardo Strozzi engaged with musical themes in their paintings of Venetian life. In Handel’s London many highly regarded artists, such as Sebastiano Ricci or James Thornhill, painted stage sets. In Paris we see how many of the Impressionist artists, such as Manet or Fantin-Latour, were inspired by both Wagner’s ideas of the total work of art, (the gesamtkunstwerk) and the artistic sexual themes of the opera itself (Tannhäuser). Salome remains a constant source of inspiration for artists, including Alfred Roller, the Secessionist artist who designed sets for the opera in Vienna in 1918 and later Salvador Dalí, who collaborated with Peter Brook on the 1949 production at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. More recently, artists like David Hockney have designed for opera.
WW: Sound will be brought into the exhibition in an innovative way.
KB: As visitors move through the exhibition, there will be a seamless journey through opera, which is integrated with the space and the objects. Excerpts from the opera will correspond to groups of exhibits, creating a powerful synesthetic and emotional experience. And specially made recordings of some of the operas place visitors at the heart of the performance.