V&A exhibition Opera: Power, Passion and Politics will broaden your mind

Opera is having a moment, reckons Claire Jackson, as proven by a special exhibition at the V&A curated by Kate Bailey, and Armando Iannucci's new book

Opera lends itself to stereotypes; overweight divas even form the basis of a popular proverb. Attendees are characterised as wealthy and white, with productions in posh theatres that appear to require a secret password to enter – and possibly a large donation. While many operas are held in stunning venues with mouth-watering hospitality and a dress code to match (like any major event), even top-notch productions offer plenty of tickets for a cost similar to going to the theatre or football (and many a lot cheaper). Plenty of mainstream venues offer standing-only places and restricted-view seats from £9.

This preamble is necessary because opera is having something of a moment. There’s not a new Ring cycle or soprano spat – it’s the subject of several projects aimed at broadening the world of tenors, répétiteurs et al.

Opera: Power, Passion and Politics is a special exhibition at the V&A curated by Kate Bailey, in collaboration with the Royal Opera House. It focuses on seven operas and the cities in which they were premiered, providing snapshots of society over a 400-year period. The multi-media exhibition – the first to be held in the museum’s new Sainsbury Gallery – is an immersive experience; visitors listen to the operas depicted via an array of artefacts that vary from scores to costumes and a practically full-size replica of an 18th-century stage. We walk into Monteverdi’s Venice, the setting for L’Incoronazione di Poppea, to London and Handel’s Rinaldo, Vienna and The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, Milan via Verdi’s Nabucco, Paris and Tannhäuser by Wagner, and eventually Dresden (Salome by Strauss – Nadja Michael is pictured above in the role at the ROH in 2008) and Leningrad (Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsenk District). The final space explores opera post-1945.

From the blackboard quotations to the cutting-edge tech and frank commentary, this will undoubtedly whet the appetite of anyone with a cultural interest – not only opera fans

This, surprisingly, is the first exhibition of its kind. From the blackboard quotations to the cutting-edge tech (the accompanying headset is automated and adjusts depending the exhibit you’re observing) and frank commentary, this will undoubtedly whet the appetite of anyone with a cultural interest – not only opera fans. Some of the specialist press has complained the exhibition only scratches the surface. True, but the V&A has a created a sensational surface; choosing just seven operas was always going to be tricky.

Opera has found herself a new advocate in recent Big Issue guest editor Armando Iannucci, who has just released a book on operatic rituals. Hear Me Out charts Iannucci’s discovery of classical music and how to ­navigate the world of opera. Could Iannucci be tempted into writing a libretto? Imagine The Thick of It: the Opera; Plácido Domingo as Malcolm Tucker, anyone?

Opera: Power, Passion and Politics is at the V&A in London until February 25

Words: Claire  Jackson, @claireiswriting