V&A opera exhibition looks to put to rest prejudice about art form

Mark Brown Arts correspondent
V&A staff with a velvet French coat, Melancholy Girl by Kirchner, and an Italian theatre costume bodice. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

A newly announced V&A exhibition exploring opera could help remove the prejudice and misconceptions many people still have about the art form, it has been claimed.

Kasper Holten, the departing director of the Royal Opera, believes a show being staged by the museum later this year could be a gamechanger.

“This exhibition could be part of changing the conversation around opera,” he said on Friday. “If we look at how people talked about wine in this country 20-25 years ago and how people now talk with knowledge, with care, with passion, I think there are moments when conversations around things change and the moment is ripe for opera now.”

Holten was speaking at the launch of what is being billed as the first exhibition to explore opera on a grand scale. After the V&A’s success at staging immersive, popular shows on David Bowie and the 1960s, it is to tackle opera in what will be the first show staged in its enormous, underground temporary exhibition space scheduled to open later this year.

More than 300 objects will go on display in a show focusing on seven opera premieres in seven cities, from Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea in Venice in 1642, to Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk in St Petersburg in 1934.

The Royal Opera chorus perform around The Rape of Proserpina sculpture at the V&A. Photograph: Victoria Jones/PA

The idea for the show was hatched by Holten, who this month leaves the Royal Opera, and the V&A’s former director Martin Roth in a meeting about six years ago.

Holten said it would not be an exhibition telling the history of opera itself. Instead it would explore the history of Europe through the prism of opera, showing how art can cross borders, and unite and inspire people.

He said opera still faced prejudice from people who believed it was not for them, or imagined it was people singing “I love you” over and over for five minutes, or “I’m dying” for seven minutes. He hoped the new show will encourage people to go to an opera for themselves. He said: “If some people go and have their opinion of opera changed, even if they never come back, that is not a bad thing.”

Objects going on display will include Dalí’s costume design for Peter Brook’s 1949 production of Salome; Manet’s painting Music in the Tuileries Garden, which contextualised Wagner’s modern approach to music in 1860s Paris; the original score of Verdi’s Nabucco, on loan from the Archivio Storico Ricordi in Milan; and Shostakovich’s original ink-and-coffee-stained score for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Visitors will wear headphones and hear and see opera performances from around the world as they tour the show. At one stage it will feel like they are walking through a chorus of singers performing the Chorus of Hebrew Slaves from Nabucco.

The BBC will also present a season of programmes to coincide with the show, including a BBC2 documentary series with Lucy Worsley and Antonio Pappano, exploring the same operas and cities as the show.

Aside from Venice and St Petersburg, the other opera premieres in the exhibition are: Handel’s Rinaldo in London, 1711; Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in Vienna, 1786; Verdi’s Nabucco in Milan, 1842; Wagner’s Tannhäuser in Paris, 1861; and Strauss’s Salome in Dresden, 1905.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics will be at the V&A 30 September-25 February.

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