The Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) at London and the Royal Opera House together, through an exciting landmark exhibition Opera: Passion Power and Politics starting on September 30, 2017, will relate the story of opera, the music of love and life, from its beginnings in late-Renaissance in Italy until today.
Dynamic opera performances from around the world will be played via headphones as you visit the only exhibition to fully explore the evolution of opera, a significant tradition in western culture, which reflects the classical maturity of our society while exploring its contemporary attitudes and philosophies, fashions and passions.
Covering four centuries of evolution, the story will be related through the lens of seven premieres in seven European cities, Venice, London, Vienna, Milan, Paris, Dresden and St Petersburg. It will be a vivid journey, exploring all the aspects of this extraordinary genre required to bring a multi-sensory work of art such as opera to both fruition and success.
Showcasing some 300 extraordinary objects alongside digital footage of opera performances, this will be the first exhibition in the V&A’s all new purpose built exhibition space, the Sainsbury Gallery.
The original score by Italian composer Antonio Vivaldi (1678 – 1741) from his opera Nabucco and from the Archivio Storico Ricordi in Milan, will be just one of two surviving scores from the first public opera (L’incoronazione di Poppea) on display.
The exhibition will include a powerful new recording by the Royal Opera Chorus of the very accessible aria ‘Va pensiero’ (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves). This is considered by many to be Italy’s unofficial national anthem and was featured in Giuseppi Verdi’s opera Nabucco in 1842 and sung with great passion and emotion at his funeral.
Kate Bailey, V&A curator said “… We are delighted to be working so closely with the Royal Opera House, drawing together their expertise with the V&A’s broad collections to bring the total art form of opera to life in a stunning new space”.
There will be a myriad of events to consider attending, including a documentary series made by BBC Music, and an Online educational course created in partnership with King’s College, London, the Royal Opera House and V&A, which will be all about exploring the core tenets of opera.
The arrival of humanism marked a move from sacred to secular music, during the period in Italy we now know as the Renaissance.
In Florence at the courts of major families such as the Medici, the Sforza, the Este, as well as art-loving Popes like Julius II [1443-1513] the love of music spawned a legion of composers producing music for different classes of a society that enjoyed it daily. So much so, the demand for original works became overwhelming.
This was a time when musicians like painters and sculptors first began to be recognized as individual artists, elevating their ability to both earn money and high status in their community.
They enjoyed a new and privileged place in the highest echelons of society as their compositions became an important aspect of life reflecting Italian culture and its intellectual wealth.
Going to the opera became an ‘event’, enabling society to practice its social graces and to wear the textiles that dazzled and boosted the economy.
It was also about enjoying a new experience of music that nourished and nurtured their spirits and souls.
Different styles of music gradually developed with the tone, range and pitch of instruments refined. The soundscape dramatically improved and singers were drawn to the new challenges by an all-new artistic latitude so very different to singing only in a sacred setting, which had been the case for centuries.
Opera is an abbreviation of the term Opera in Musica meaning a work or story that is a social comment on its time set to music. Though their purpose was to recreate ancient Greek drama, fundamentally a lyrical art, the Florentine Camerata, an important group of musical amateurs changed the whole musical world.
They met to discuss literature, science and the arts from the 14 January 1573 at Count Giovanni Bardi’s house and they altered the history of music by opening a venue for musical creativity and performance; the secular world of the theatre.
The impact this had on singing would be revolutionary: women’s voices could also be used, dramatic expressiveness would be able to flourish, and the skills of moving and acting while singing a new skill to be learned. In this way Opera was born.
The first opera opened in a public opera house in Venice in 1637 and over the next three centuries as audiences, orchestras and singers expanded, so did venues.
Eventually public theatres came complete with elaborate machinery to work different aspects of the scenery and refined acoustics that assisted singers with far greater projection and volume. Their repertory was enlarged with composers all over Europe and England commissioned to create all new works.
The very essence of opera was the music was integral, not incidental, as in a ‘musical’ or, a play with music. The words help form a narrative and told a tale of the human condition with all its flaws, foibles, fantasies and fearlessness.
Opera as it expanded represented the spirit of an age in which kings, tyrants, condottieri, diplomats, artists, churchmen, philosophers and adventurers thirsted for knowledge, a desire only exceeded by their need for more.
The hero was always a virtuosic vocalist, although it took some time before the gender of the performer and the role they were playing matched.
Clouds and birds were now appearing in the sky and staircases arrived on stage with incidental music designed to be loud to mask the sound of the mechanics as they were winched into place.
Placing the instrumentalists in an area in front of the stage between it and the audience meant singers had to learn to ‘throw’ their voice or sing at a level of intensity that would allow it to carry across the space. By the end of the seventeenth century nearly 400 operas had been produced in Venice alone.
By the eighteenth century in England and Europe music reflected the notion man and nature were in harmony with each other.
Creative imagination infused German born London based composer George Frideric Handel’s music with the notion man and nature were in harmony with each other.
A sense of heroism and great energy abounded, the English adoring Handel’s incredible richness of a sound that reached a pinnacle in his operas.
As Director of the Royal Academy of Music from 1720 – 1728, Handel had a long association with the Opera House at Covent Garden.
Music in the Tuilleries Gardens in Paris is a modernist painting by Edouard Manet that will be on display, which was sold to opera singer and collector Jean-Baptiste Faure in 1883. There are no musicians in sight, but it does show a group of Parisians attending one of the twice-weekly opera concerts held in the gardens sited near the Louvre.
Original material from the 1934 St Petersburg premiere of Shostakovich’s avant-garde Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk will also be reunited and displayed outside Russia for the first time, including the composer’s original autograph score, along with stage directions, libretto, set models and costume designs.
Footage from 20th- and 21st-century premieres including Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Licht and George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, will create a finale showing how opera has moved from Europe across the world and today continues to take on new forms.
Opera has become a vibrant and exciting meeting place for all aspects of the arts in our society.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
in collaboration with
Royal Opera House
September 30, 2017 – February 25, 2018
The Seven Cities
Venice – Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea, 1642. The narrative of the exhibition will begin in Venice, a Renaissance centre of entertainment, gambling and disguise, with a sumptuous painting of composer Barbara Strozzi depicted as a courtesan. The original surviving manuscript score of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea – an opera exploring scandal and ambition, which premiered in Venice’s Carnival season 1642-3 – represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.
London – Handel’s Rinaldo, 1711 In 1711 Handel’s Rinaldo was premiered – one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, as the city emerged as a global trade centre. A dramatic, kinetic set will re-create the premiere’s elaborate staging, which caused a sensation at the time. The fashion for castrat0 singers will be shown through paintings and rare surviving costumes. Tensions at the time between the incoming European-inspired opera and traditional theatre are highlighted in a Hogarth engraving depicting crowds attending the opera as Shakespeare’s plays are wheeled away.
Vienna – Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, 1786. Mozart’s comic opera Le nozze di Figaro premiered in 1786 in Vienna, a centre of the Enlightenment. Its characters were drawn from everyday life and the singers wore contemporary costume on stage. Fashionable dress as worn by Mozart’s Count and Countess Almaviva will be on display. The role of the composer will be examined through the figure of Mozart, and a piano he played on a visit to Prague will travel for the first time for the exhibition.
Milan – Verdi’s Nabucco, 1842 The growing importance of the chorus is explored through Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco which premiered in Milan in 1842. The opera’s ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) became an unofficial national anthem for Italy after the events of the Risorgimento led to the country’s unification.
Paris – Wagner’s Tannhäuser, 1861 In the 1860s opera enjoyed a high status in Paris, a city undergoing huge transformations. The 1861 Paris premiere of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, which he had revised specially for performances in the city, polarised audiences, but Wagner’s vision for the art form proved inspirational for artists and writers.
Dresden – Strauss’ Salome, 1905 Richard Strauss’s explosive modernist opera Salome premiered in 1905 in Dresden, a progressive city in the grip of artistic expressionism, as depicted in Erich Heckel’s painting of the suburbs. The opera’s reception and the shifting perceptions of women that the story reflected will be examined. The exhibition also includes many depictions of Salome, from Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to a Versace costume design.
St Petersburg – Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, 1934 the final opera explored in detail is Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Initially embraced by audiences at its St Petersburg premiere in 1934 as an expression of new Soviet opera, it was banned under political censorship in 1936. Shostakovich did not write another opera. Both avant-garde and propaganda material will be on display alongside a painting inspired by Shostakovich’s First Symphony by Pavel Filonov, rarely seen outside Russia.