Opera: Passion, Power and Politics


I was lucky enough to go to the press launch of the new exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum today – it’s called Opera: Passion, Power and Politics and officially opens this Saturday 30th September. The way the exhibition is structured is around 7 different operas and 7 cities, and the relationship between each – so, absolutely perfect for this blog about music and travel. I don’t think I can claim this is a review but I can share some thoughts about my visit.

The exhibition is in the brand new Sainsbury gallery which is an incredibly impressive space – also helped by the fact that going down the steps to the gallery feels like walking inside a grand piano with its shining black curved stairwell. At the bottom of these stairs we were given rather expensive-looking audio guides and took our first steps into….

Venice: Monteverdi’s ‘L’incoronazione di Poppea
[side note – I’ve always thought Poppea is a lovely name, regardless of her character!]


Barbara ‘Babs’ Strozzi

Walking into the entrance, our headsets started playing Pur Ti Miro and there are artefacts relating to 16th and 17th century Venice: glass works, beauty tools, books and scores. A painting of Barbara Strozzi (composer and, possibly, courtesan) hangs on the wall. The exhibits tell us about the history of opera and how Monteverdi was there are the beginning of it all. It relates what the story and setting of the opera tells us about contemporary Venice. The music changes as you walk around, and it’s really fantastic to hear the music, throwing you Proust-like straight into the streets of Venice. I also particularly liked seeing the stilted courtesan shoes, and the gorgeous 500-year old musical instruments.


London: Handel’s Rinaldo
Full disclosure: It would be a very long stretch indeed to call me a Handel fan. I enjoy a 5611.jpgChristmastime Messiah (who doesn’t?!) and I can write you an essay titled “Performances of Messiah in Victorian London and their reflections of public consciousness of Empire”, but watching a full Handel opera isn’t exactly at the top of my must-do list. But in this section in particular I enjoyed finding out more about Handel in London, contemporary reviews, and about Baroque stage-craft. The mock-up of a stage with moving waves and ships moving across was fun and impressive. 

Vienna: Mozart’s La Nozze di Figaro
07.OPR123_3316240Unsurprisingly, I was very happy to find myself whisked over to Vienna and the sound of The Marriage of Figaro (recently voted Best Opera of All Time) welcomed us to a section filled with Mozart’s letters, a piano he played, and clothes contemporary to the opera (composed in 1786). Most excitingly, there is an autograph Mozart score, open at Cherubino’s ‘Non so più cosa son’ (which Antonio Pappano dissects for us on the audio-guide). We also learn about Beaumarchais’ play, the inspiration for the opera, caused controversy in its depiction of aristocrats, and how the opera costumes influenced contemporary fashions.

Milan: Verdi’s Nabucco
You may be familiar with the story of how Giuseppe Verdi (Joe Green, as my dad always 4500likes to remind me) became a symbol of Italian nationalism (“Viva Verdi” was used as an acronym for Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia), and it’s the chorus from his opera Nabucco – Va Pensiero, again, in our headsets – that became an unofficial second Italian national anthem. My favourite bit about this section was the display of photos of the inside of Italy’s 150+ regional opera houses.

Paris: Wagner’s Tannhauser
045It may seem like a strange choice for Paris to be Wagner (and it does mean there isn’t a French-composed opera represented in the exhibition) but I suppose we needed Wagner in there somewhere, and this opera does give the opportunity to show how Parisian opera differed (Wagner altered Tannhauser for his Paris audience, adding the all-important ballet scene). There were again lovely costumes and pictures of the Palais Garnier being built, but I was most taken by the hand-written letters signed Richard Wagner. There’s just something so awesome about seeing things they wrote and handled, some tangible link to them. But before we even realise it, we’ve landed straight into…

Dresden: Strauss’s Salome
I found this section most interesting, because so much of the information was new to me.


Opera, German, Feminism. What more do you need?!

My favourite part of this section was Strauss’s marked up copy of Wilde’s play, with little sketches of music in. You can basically see him composing as he reads. It was great to learn more about Dresden (it’s definitely been pushed up my list of places to visit) and performances at the Semperoper. I knew that Salome was/is pretty contraversial and I enjoyed finding out more about the city where it was premiered (it was banned in Vienna). The Dance of the Seven Veils is the most famous bit of this opera. Interesting to discover how this opera about a woman who erotically dances for her step-dad so he’ll give her the head of the man she’s obsessively in love with apparently progressed the cause of women. I’ll take their word for it…. But I am looking forward to seeing Salome for the first time later this season at Covent Garden.

Leningrad: Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District


A premiere programme

This section had a lot of personal resonance because I’ve just been to Russia for the first time and in fact visited the theatre where this opera was premiered (future blog post coming up!) Note that the city is called Leningrad and not Saint Petersburg – because this section tells the story of how Shostakovich’s opera was premiered and regularly performed,  it was popular with audiences, and then Stalin’s Pravda article tore him down causing Shostakovich to live in terror. (Read more about that story here) We have Soviet propaganda films and posters, a reconstruction of Shostakovich’s study, and most excitingly, an Shostakovich autograph score of the opera that has never been on display before. 

In all honesty the exhibition was less musical than I hoped – I know we heard the operas all the way around and there were exciting musical artefacts. But there’s much more about the social impact and surroundings of each opera and its related city than about each opera itself. The artefacts that excited me most didn’t feel like they were given enough attention – autograph scores that were written BY THE COMPOSER’S OWN HANDS were next to more anonymous items – but then given that I once visited a museum and took pictures of a matchbox that was owned by Bruckner, I guess it isn’t surprising that I would want more of the musicians. I think it’s worth remembering that this is an exhibition at a design museum, rather than a music museum or concert hall. I really hope that this will persuade an audience who isn’t already smitten with opera to give it a go. The immersion in the music, via the headsets, gives a fantastic flavour of each piece, and it cleverly moves around the exhibit with you so you don’t need to operate it when moving from one city to the next.

Of course there are things I would’ve done differently but I am, after all, not a curator. And I’ve had fun thinking about which other cities, operas and stories I would’ve told (Porgy and Bess in Boston, Eugene Onegin in Moscow or perhaps Peter Grimes in London). I’d be interested to hear other people’s ideas too. But overall this is definitely an exhibition I would recommend visiting!

The exhibition opens on Saturday 30th Septembe 2017.

See inside the exhibition – on the V&A website

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