passion /ˈpaʃ(ə)n/ - noun:
1. strong and barely controllable emotion.
2. the suffering and death of Jesus. (via Google)OK, so we're talking about the first definition here. Though if you've just come out of the V&A's latest exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics you'd understand the etymology. The composers who bring the key works featured in the narrative of the exhibition are increasingly singled out, either as as heroes or agitators, suffering for their stubborn adherence to their muse.
#OperaPassion - to choose the hashtag-contracted title for social media - is a well-focused exhibition, tramlined along the triple rail of its own title. We get eight operas as a narrative armature: L'incoronazione di Poppea, Rinaldo, Il Nozze di Figaro, Nabucco, Tannhäuser, Salome and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District, with a smattering of others in allusion. There's also a large area near the exit given over to 'World Opera' showing clips from productions of the art's diaspora: Written on Skin, Licht, L'Amour de Loin, to name a few in the absence of a list or the patience to sit through and note them all.
The exhibition seems pitched just about right. The operas are fine repertory pieces, the extracts representative (and often catchy). Alongside projections, scores and source texts for libretti are paraphernalia from theatres and concurrent cultural bits n bobs (drinking tokens from early 18th century London, one picturing a lute). There are some fine artworks too, both of musicians but also as flags of the cultural diet from the period - an excellent landscape of a Viennese market and Francesco Hayez's 1859 Il Bacio (The Kiss) stand out. Particularly impressive is a staged film of a youthful Shostakovich 'composing' Lad Macbeth.
Of course, key to an operatic exhibition is the music. The V&A equip each visitor with a location sensitive mp3 player and (excellent) Bowers & Wilkins headphones. This arrangement, vaguely familiar from the Bowie exhibition in this museum of a couple of years ago, is slick and convenient. with hands free, one gets an aural impression of the exhibits dead ahead - including a reproduction baroque theatre. It's well-mixed and the transitions were smooth at whatever speed I walked.
It was also maddening. Part of the difficulty posed by music - by opera - is that it reveals itself at a set speed; equally that one must commit to listening for a set or minimum period of time. Part of my frustration with the first few spaces of the exhibition (beyond it being rather cramped to begin with) involved getting to grips with this dissonance: wanting to look at the exhibits at my own pace and having that pace dictated by the music, the the music's dependence on location.
This was as much an issue for me as for the curator. But then, I also considered how focusing on the content is part of a modern stumbling block with operatic attractions.
At the end of last week I attended one of the few live operatic productions staged at the V&A. Kepler's Trial concerns a religious cross-examination of Kepler's mother, tried as a witch (I was reminded of Vere in Billy Budd, 'It is not his trial, it is mine, mine!'). Tim Watts' music has plenty to recommend it, not least a modern appropriation of various period compositions, expertly rendered by the Gesualdo Six; the Lydia & Manfred Gorvy Lecture Theatre has great potential for musical events once the best way to stage music drama is settled on.
Yet the V&A isn't an auditorium. Kettling an audience between (excellent) pre-performance talk and show works against the best intent of exhibitor and audience alike, for all that there were drinks available (for 45 mins we couldn't leave the building or get back in to our seats in the theatre). Securing a modern audience for operatic productions relies on an implied contract: welcome, join the audience in attentive silence for a couple of hours and we will deliver something worth this investment. Perhaps getting to grips with a novelty, like performing space (the lecture theatre) or process (perambulation-sensitive soundtrack) might be cast as attraction.
However, if the welcome itself is contingent - as we know from the enduring nonsense over ticket prices and dress codes that sticks to the word 'opera' like the smell of last night's dinner - then things are likely to get tricky.
Opera: Passion, Power and Politics works as an overview of history and a particular component of that history. It's entertaining too. If there was not sufficient reference to the boom in the contemporary re-invention of the artform and the way in which it is produced (particularly in this country) then that'll largely be because of the remit of the museum - they have 400 years to cover - and also because we don't really know what the impact of operatic reinvention in the past decade has been, if any. One might remember that there is a dedicated 'opera' suite of rooms in the permanent collection of the V&A too.