Opera: Passion, power and politics

The new exhibition at the V&A entertains yet bemuses Julia Alsop

From the sublime to the frankly terrifying; from the exquisite displays of Baroque Handelian instruments to the gruesome and disturbing videos of a blood-covered Salome cradling the head of Jochanan, the exhibition in the Sainsbury Gallery could be perceived as the thrilling melting pot of truly holistic art form.

Following seven different European regions, the audience is able to experience the role of opera in national identity, class and rebellion.  The sound system perfectly facilitated the decision to make the music itself the focal point of the exhibition. The headphones provided selected tracks of operatic works by acclaimed performers, as well as commentaries creating an immersive atmosphere in an already visual stimulating moment. To be particularly lauded is the Leningrad section. Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District is the focal opera, featuring harrowing visual displays of the darkly themed opera alongside a rarely seen score of Shostakovich’s.

However I am left unsure who this exhibit is aimed at. Whilst the artefacts and design are striking, they only scratch the surface of operatic context. The exploration of the musical content seems superficial, and in some displays only really discussed by showing a few period instruments. Equally, whilst the drama of opera is evident, the accessibility to a modern day audience isn’t convincing. It is hard to fault the all-encompassing aesthetic, epitomising opera as an art that contains not just music, but also of costume, and the power of movement. This is an aspect which Kate Bailey, the curator, explained was the reason it was chosen as an ideal topic for the V&A. However, its polarisation of geography fell short in the omission of certain key operatic cultures.

It seems a shame to only explore Paris through Wagner, forgetting French opera, Britten’s English operatic protagonists, or even America’s multicontinental influences and creation of operetta. In representing a holistic art form it is easy to make a superficial sweep of individual elements, rather than digging deep into the cohesive whole, which is something that the V&A may have fall victim to.