By Catherine de Guise
Opera is often perceived to be dull and far-removed from real life. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly dispels these myths. It places seven operas in their social and historical context to give a fascinating account of how opera can both influence and reflect a society.
A review of the V&A’s captivating exhibition delving into the history of opera, and an exploration of its key themes
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics takes you through seven cities at times where opera flourished, immersing you in the social developments and political climate. This is aided by decadent displays and headphones, which provide a soundtrack to the exhibition. It begins with the final, sensual, duet of Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea, immediately introducing the first theme of the exhibition: passion.
Although it’s present throughout the exhibition, passion reaches its peak in Dresden. Here one’s attention is instantly drawn to the large screen, and on it, Salome in passionate embrace with the bloody, decapitated head of John the Baptist. It’s gruesomely magnetising and thus apt for this section, which looks at Strauss’s Salome in relation to shifting attitudes towards women at the fin-de-siecle.
In this section, the exhibition raises intriguing points but fails to really tie together the links that they have tried to form. Salome is described as a way of exploring the changing role of women and ideas about female sexuality. They reference the role of both Freud and the women’s movement in this but do not delve into the vastly different ways they could have had influence. It is thus unclear whether the social backdrop lends itself to seeing Strauss’s Salome as a victim of male lust, a perverted manipulator, a confused adolescent or a formidable woman.
The Beardsley illustrations on display and the context provided for them impart a clearer view of Salome. They give a strong impression of an empowered woman, not a victim of male sexuality, but a wielder of her own as a weapon against men. She is parting with Victorian expectations of women, and becoming aware of her own sexuality. The caption for the image points out that Beardsley includes works by Sade and Zola on Salome’s shelf, a playful indication of her sexual emancipation.
Whether or not Salome is an irredeemably immoral character still remains ambiguous. In 18th century England, there was less ambiguity surrounding immorality in opera. The exhibition highlights the satirisation of the castrati (male singers who were castrated) in the press. They were widely seen as immoral and insatiable lovers, but although they faced disapproval they were also hugely admired, especially by women, for their alluring androgyny. To most this androyny was seen to pose a threat to English masculinity. The London Tradesman wrote that music ‘effeminates the mind.’ Music as a whole was thus seen to threaten morality, encouraging ‘Luxury, Cowardice and Venality’.
The immorality of the singers and music wasn’t the only ground on which the opera was denounced in England. Nationalist fervour was another. The exhibition showcases a Spectator article written by Joseph Addison which states that future generations would not be able to understand why ‘their forefathers used to sit like an audience of foreigners in their own country to hear plays acted in a tongue which they did not understand.’ Addison claims that though the Italians may have a ‘genius for music above the English, the English have a genius for other performances of a much higher nature, and capable of giving the mind a much nobler entertainment.’ One such example of ‘nobler entertainment’ was the theatre, whose existence was believed to be threatened by baser foreign imports.
Since the exhibition highlights England at the time of the premiere of Rinaldo in 1711, it doesn’t examine how the association of opera with foreign immorality meant it could never really flourish in England through becoming a means of expressing national feeling. A German visitor to England in 1790 wrote that most people in England regarded Italian Opera ‘with the utmost contempt’, and that ‘the nobility alone supports it’. This would all seem startlingly familiar to someone in England today, as we observe a similar divide between the affluent metropolitan elite and those whose livelihoods lead them to believe that foreigners are a threat.
In Germany the opera was able to capture national identity, and in a detrimental way, although again the exhibition doesn’t go in to this as it is beyond its time frame. Hitler saw Wagner’s operas as embodying his vision of the German nation and used his music at Nazi events. His music certainly came across to many Germans as an assertion of national superiority.
In Italy the opera helped define a sense of Italian nationality during Italian Unification. The exhibition showcases Verdi’s role in the unification of Italy through the arts, emphasising the patriotic intent in Nabucco. The chorus of the Hebrew slaves, ‘Va, pensiero’, is viewed by many historians as an attempt at a nationalist anthem for Italian patriots. However, it has also been argued that the nationalist dimension to Verdi’s work may have been exaggerated by those seeking a nationalist hero. Even so, it shows how important culture can be to those trying to carve out a sense of identity in order to not lose oneself and give in in the face of oppression.
After the October Revolution there was an attempt by the Russians to assert their identity, independent of European tradition. They sought to demonstrate their new political ideology through the arts. Opera flourished amidst this, but the burst of experimental creativity was ended by the Great Pruge, starting in 1936. The exhibition highlights Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk, which was initially praised as an expression of new soviet opera. It was later described as ‘too flippant to deal with proletarian themes’ and denounced for its immoral heroine, falling from official favour and being banned for almost 30 years. This shows the extent to which political regimes could fear the influence of the arts and thus sought to control it.
This approach contrasts with that of Joseph II, who is widely seen as a progressive cultural liberator. The exhibition keenly promotes this view and undeniably during his reign there was reduced state censorship. However, he was perhaps not as great an advocate of freedom as is believed. He banned performances of Beaumarchais’s play The Marriage of Figaro for containing ‘much that is offensive.’ Louis VXI also banned it for its derision of ‘everything that ought to be respected in a government.’ Louis faced much criticism for this, which forced him to eventually acquiesce and allow performances of the play.
It would therefore seem unlikely that Joseph II would be keen to stage Mozart’s opera of the same name, which was based on the play. In the film Amadeus, Joseph II is portrayed as initially unwilling to stage Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, but it was in fact his direct intervention that allowed for its staging. The exhibition presents the opera as a victory for enlightened thought and freedom of speech, seeing it as a social and political critique. It states that The Marriage of Figaro was the first to give prominence to servants, portraying the master as predatory and giving the servants a primary role. Even so, the story was heavily depoliticised when Da Ponte turned the play into a libretto. Figaro’s speech denouncing the nobility was left out, and Da Ponte instead wrote an aria condemning adulterous women.
The opera, nevertheless, was a medium that encouraged political and social discourse. In Vienna, the city of the Enlightenment, Salons were places where opera was discussed alongside politics and philosophy. The opera itself was a place to explore philosophical notions. Mozart mirrored contemporary exploration of emotion, as expounded by Rousseau, in his operas.
The relationship between opera and intellectual debate is also showcased in England, where there was a mutually supportive relationship between opera and coffee houses. It was in coffee houses that opera tickets were bought. These houses were known as ‘penny universities’ and were places of knowledge and the spread of ideas. By the 18th century they were praised for encouraging rational discussion.
An aspect of coffee houses that the exhibition doesn’t delve into is their role as places free from social hierarchy, as all who could pay for coffee were welcome. The discussions, lectures, meetings and spread of information through periodicals and newspapers in coffee houses shows their importance in the development of an informed public. Although still not a wholly meritocratic world, it does show the growing influence of the public upon culture in commercial London.
The exhibition raises interesting points about art and culture by placing operas in their social and political contexts. It shows the darker side to art – its ability to alienate and exclude people, be it in the grounds of class or feelings of national superiority. Also, its potential to be used as a means of political control and how it can be manipulated to force a narrative. However, it also shows the power of art to bring people together, to encourage debate and to force change.
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 25 February