What’s the best way for opera to gain new audiences? The most obvious answer is to encourage new audiences to see an opera and hope that they will enjoy the story, music and singing all at once. Then we have to ask ourselves another question: what are the best operas to show someone who is completely new to the art form? I can see the serious dramas such as La Traviata, Madame Butterfly and Carmen, or even the silly comedies like The Barber of Seville and The Pirates of Penzance being on the top of the list. The narratives are easy enough to follow, depending on the direction and staging, and the music is regularly recycled on commercial adverts (often on radio and TV) which, probably, anyone can recognise.

The Victoria and Albert Museum has taken on the responsibility of introducing opera to newer audiences using an entirely different technique. A brand new exhibition with the collaboration of Covent Garden’s Royal Opera House (and Societe Genrale) has opened at the Sainsbury Gallery. It is the first time the Sainsbury Gallery has exhibited work and artifacts to this scale – the largest in Europe of its kind.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics requires 70 minutes of your time, as written on the entrance wall of the exhibition. Visitors are handed a fabulous pair of headphones for a 4D experience of opera seen through key moments in history, beginning with Renaissance Italy to today’s premieres. To its curator Kate Bailey, international opera director Robert Carsen and the ROH’s Music Director Antonio Pappano, this includes 300 extraordinary objects across seven operatic premieres in seven cities. For those who know the opera catalogue, the exhibition breaks it down with Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea (1642), Handel’s Rinaldo (1711), Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Verdi’s Nabucco (1842), Wagner’s Tannhäuser (1961), Strauss’ Salome (1905) and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk (1934). This is just Pappano’s, Carsen’s and Bailey’s choice of operas, though. Other directors and curators in the field may think of another selection.

As one moves within the exhibition, arias and duets from these operas would emanate from their headphones. Recordings by the ROH Chorus singing Va pensiero from Nabucco and the love duet Pur-to-miro from Poppea, sung by Danielle di Niese and Alice Cootes, are part of the auditory experience and there’s much more to see and hear here.

Delicately designed bottles and goblets ‘probably’ from Venice in the 1600s open up the exhibition to illuminating costumes from Monteverdi’s early productions. Then there’s the musical instruments, lutes, and theorbos which are used to perform Monteverdi’s music. To accompany an ornate and decorative Harpsichord, there’s an image of Anna Renzi, a leading ‘prima donna’ and Italian soprano of the 17th century. This was the appeal of opera in Venice. Somehow an art form exclusively performed for the court became accessible to the public.

Surrounding each new era and new opera there would be stylish post-it notes of the different arias, recitatives, synopsis and character sheets set on the gallery’s wall. Moving onto Handel’s England, a traditional coat worn by a man in the 1700s was on display, including a cooling fan with a drawing of the Haymarket Theatre in 1705. Given that London was becoming a major global trading hub for the 1700s, opera sung in Italian wasn’t a complete shock to the system.

In the early 18th century, Vienna was the centre of the Enlightenment era. To highlight the influential prowess of the music genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the V & A provide the same piano played by the composer in Prague, 1787. His Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) premiered in Vienna the year before that. Together with his father’s records and manuscripts of every concert his son had performed, the exhibition presents the documents of Mozart’s loyalty to the Freemasons, as well.

A bronze mounted statue of Verdi, by Raffaello Romanello, sculpted in 1890 demonstrates the power of his music which was used as the Italian anthem, otherwise known as The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, after Risorgimento (1815 – 1871).

In Paris, Wagner made history. Definitions of Gesamtkunstwek (total work of art) are defined on the gallery’s wall in white, and the significant inspiration he made on writers and artists can be seen through his premier of Tannhäuser in 1861.

Moving along the exhibition, there’s video footage of soprano Nadja Michaels as Salome in the Royal Opera House’s 2008 production of Strauss’s own opera. Aubrey Beardsley’s Illustrations of Salome were all part of the Aesthetic Movement of 1872, which was shared with Oscar Wilde, the author of the original biblical tale of Salome. On the wall, it is noted that there were new attitudes towards women in Dresden, Germany in 1905. It is the year Salome premiered at its national opera house.

Rarely seen outside of Russia, there’s the art work Shostakovich’s First Symphony in the form of a painting by Pavel Filonov. There’s also a newsreel of the composer himself writing his opera, Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in 1933, where he managed to make Stalin so angry that the opera was censored. A model by Olga Skurikhina of the Mikhailovsky Theatre represents the historical contrast between the influences of traditional European and pre-revolution. The red represents the Bolsheviks’ symbol of the blood of its workers.

Now, having delved deep into the material of the politics, power and passions involved in opera’s history, would someone new to opera feel more compelled to book tickets at their local opera house after seeing this exhibition? From what the exhibition has to offer, not necessarily. In this case, the exhibition provides a context to the story of opera; how opera grew in the space of cultural history, yet there are many ideas, historical facts and points missing.

Puccini wasn’t mentioned as much as opera buffs would have liked and particularly for those who are new to opera this composer, who wrote many classical operas, should have got a chunkier mention. Then there’s the other pivotal opera composers from Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Berlioz, Strauss, Gilbert and Sullivan, Offenbach, Janáček and many more. How about going further and providing a bit more clarity on the role of the baritone or tenor? Or how the relationship between the conductor, the soloists and orchestra works? And even how the staging impacts an opera performance, or how singers train to become world class opera performers? We may even ask, why there wasn’t more mention of other international opera houses? The list goes on.

I can appreciate that there is a limit to how much can be addressed with such a broad topic for any particular exhibition, but even writing as someone who knows a little bit more about opera I felt that it failed to present the captivating part of the opera genre. (I didn’t, really, learn anything new, either!) Listening to opera and bouncing from one corner to another corner of the gallery to read more historical information on objects from a particular era doesn’t go as far as encourage people to become more curious of opera, it only tells you more about the time and social setting of when an opera was written and had its premiere. Perhaps, the best way to exhibit opera is to leave it at the opera house or concert hall where operas are regularly performed. There you can see the true life of opera.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is showing at the Victoria and Albert Museum now until 25 February. Click here for more information.  

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