Exhibition ‘Opera: passion, power and politics’ at the V&A: revealing opera to a wider public

If one of the purposes of the 21st-century museum is to facilitate and broaden the general public’s knowledge without losing depth and rigour, then Opera: passion, power and politics, the first exhibition to be staged inside the V&A’s large new underground exhibition space, ranks among the most successful temporary exhibitions I have seen lately. In fact, although opera used to be a particularly popular and exciting genre for a long time in the past, today it is music for a very restricted elite and so this exhibition stands out for bringing a comprehensible account of it to a potential wider audience.

The event resulted from V&A’s collaboration with the Covent Garden Royal Opera House (and Société Générale). Visitors are wrapped in a chronological pathway spanning a set of the seven operas that the curators have singled out as most significant in the last 400 years. These are coupled with the seven cities in which these seven operas premiered (the exception being the 1861 Paris version of Wagner’s Tannhäuser): Venice for Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, London for Handel’s Rinaldo, Vienna for Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Milan for Verdi’s Nabucco, Dresden for Strauss’s Salome, and Leningrad for Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth.

This selection has received unpleasant criticisms pointing out what should have been included to have an exhibition effectively portraying the genre of opera and its scope. I do not agree with such a perspective. Opera: passion, power and politics is a museum exhibition and so not an encyclopaedic narrative or a book on opera. Accordingly, we have to bear in mind that museum exhibitions are powerful communicative tools which have, nevertheless, their own potentialities and drawbacks. Besides, no curator or medium can actually grasp the totality of a phenomenon or compress all its vastness and variety into a single communicative event.

I rather find the strategy adopted particularly sensible in that the narrative smoothly leads visitors into a domain known to be somewhat ‘intellectual’ and so relatively inaccessible. If it took the risk of becoming too inaccessible, visitors would start skipping items and feel excluded, which is something the 21st century-museum is decisively focused on avoiding. Contemporary museums are instead committed to excelling in distilling complicated elements into manageable units thereby facilitating knowledge; this does not mean, however, discarding accuracy and reliability.

At the same time, I find the approach particularly contemporary. The fact that curators are giving primacy to an opera’s social context is ground-breaking amidst opera discourses and particularly noteworthy in that it aligns with the more contemporary trends in music studies raised by Ethnomusicology and the British cultural studies since the 1980s.

The title Opera: passion, power and politics, on the other hand, seems too academic to me, more suited to a publication than a museum exhibition. Although I believe the academic public to be at ease with it, I doubt that the words power and politics will have the general public grabbing for the message. Titles like this are common in music studies publications and connote the contemporary trend that entails understanding music not exclusively as a conglomerate of notes and rhythms, but also something that is deeply intertwined with social practices. Nevertheless, I find myself wondering about where a title like this will lead the general public.

In terms of museum practice, I find the exhibition a success, although it is not particularly innovative when viewed side by side with the previous popular music exhibitions staged by the V&A, namely David Bowie is (2013), You Say You Want a Revolution? (2016), and Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains (2017). As in those exhibitions, this Opera exhibition gives music new prominence and uses the same strategy to exhibit it. Music is displayed by a set of headphones equipped with wireless technology that tracks visitors’ progress, and updates the playlist automatically as they walk round, playing the relevant operas for every room they enter without the need to keep tapping numbers into a handset. I find this museum practice the most successful created to date as regards conveying music in museum galleries. The V&A premiered it with the David Bowie is exhibition and the success was such that, in my opinion, it resulted in setting the minimum standard required to effectively exhibit music in museum exhibitions worldwide [1].

As for the visual displays, they turned out to be astonishing, luxurious and boldly theatrical, thereby remarkably capturing each opera’s unique ambience and creating very impressive museum settings. Together with the music, the displays feature sets, costumes, historic artworks, artefacts, letters, maps, instruments, paintings, musical manuscripts, and set and costume designs. The graphics and texts are among the features that I appreciated the most: concise texts and labels are schematically conveyed by graphically vivid and organized arrangements, effectively enhancing the accessibility of the information to the public.

In short, I believe Opera: passion, power and politics allows museum visitors to get into opera territory. Does it make these visitors opera specialists? Well, certainly not, but it is, notwithstanding, an interesting tweak in museum practice as regards disseminating music knowledge.


[1] David Bowie is, You Say You Want a Revolution, and Pink Floyd, their Mortal Remains had Sennheiser as sound partner, whereas Opera: passion, power and politics is powered in partnership with Bowers & Wilkins.

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