Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society, News, Reviews  |  February 11, 2018

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics at the V&A; A Multi-Sensory Voyage of Discovery and Enlightenment

Araminta Pain


The V&A’s Opera: Passion, Power and Politics exhibition, the first to be held in the new Sainsbury Gallery, is a multi–sensory, immersive experience, showcasing four hundred years of operatic history. The exhibition is split chronologically into six sections with each time period explored through a single city, and a single opera.


As someone with very limited experience of opera, (I have only seen two; La Boheme and Madame Butterfly respectively) my review is from the perspective of an opera novice. I was interested to see the exhibition however, as I am fascinated with the theatricality of opera, where production still tends towards the ostentatious. I wanted to better understand how this seemingly exclusive art from has stood the test of time and why it is still relevant today (with the added bonus of seeing some spectacular costumes).


The exhibition starts in Venice in the seventeenth century. I was immediately attracted to a costume for a dancer in the 2014 version of the seventeenth century Venetian opera Les Fêtes Vénitiennes by André Campra, with the costume design by Paul Reinhardt. The deep red brocade of the leotard/bodice and ruff-like collar and cuffs nod towards fashions of the sixteenth century, while the high cut leotard and half skirt tell the viewer this is a contemporary interpretation, evoking the provocative, free-thinking republic of Venice, evidenced in the historical paintings of courtesans and gamblers surrounding the cabinet.


Moving in to the London/Handel/Rinaldo section, it was instantly clear that this was when opera became about the production value. The central feature of this section is an installation of a replica baroque stage set. The use of large sections of sets and props is continued throughout the exhibition, creating a sense of grandeur and conjuring up the sense of artistry and creativity that we have come to associate with operatic staging. Behind this stage was a small section curated to look like the backstage area, complete with armoury props stored on shelves. Other costume highlights from this time period included a heavily embroidered costume for a male castro singer in Italy dating to the mid-eighteenth century and a skirt and bodice, again from a similar period. Both costumes used tinsel embroidery which would have caught the light of candles enhancing the actor’s movements.


As the timeline moves to Vienna and Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’ the political power of opera and its ability to influence everyday life is explored, partly through a display of costumes and fashion plates showcasing how fashions of the time were inspired by costume designs. The political force of opera is explored yet further in the Milan/Verdi/Nabucco section, which links this seminal opera to the Italian Revolution. From politics to power; next stop, Paris/ Wagner/Tannhäuser, showcasing how attending the opera became a status symbol for the elite. The grand evening dress worn to the premiere of Tannhäuser by Empress Eugénie of France and the ‘floating top hat’ installation communicate the notion that it was de rigueur to sport the latest fashions to the opera, such as the collapsible top hats worn by men.


Another notable costume installation was that of an evening gown for Violetta in La Traviata designed by Bob Crowley (1994). The information board tells us the production was set in the 1850s, yet to me the gown was ahead of the time it was set in, evoking 1950s couture styles of Charles James and Christian Dior.


The final sections of the exhibition took on a much more sinister tone with Dresden and Salome by Richard Strauss. Salome, which premiered in Dresden in 1905, was originally banned in Berlin and censored in Vienna. Its provocative anti-heroine is considered within the context of the changing times at the turn of the century; key influences on Salome included Freud’s work on the study of hysteria as well as feminist debate and the fight for women’s emancipation. Of all the sections in the exhibition, Salome is the most costume-focused, with examples of designs by Salvador Dalí and Gianni Versace displayed.


The final point on the timeline is Leningrad in Stalin’s Russia and the opera of Lady Macbeth by Dimitri Shostakovich. In this section opera becomes a politically contentious subject; the display explores how it was at first embraced by Stalin’s regime, then heavily censored due to its perceived inspirational message. Once again, powerful installation was used with Soviet-style propaganda enlarged to create an intimidating spectre. This was cast in bright red light with projected words that the regime felt described operas influence. This was one of the strongest elements of the exhibition for me, the visual imagery completely summing up the message.


Throughout the exhibition information was displayed in a mind map style format, in a scrawled handwritten font, highlighting key points about each city, opera or composer intermingled with influential quotes. One that caught my eye read as follows:


‘The stage is in general a painting of human passions, the original of which is in every heart.(Jean-Jaques Roussseau , 1758).


This sums up the operatic art form for me; a highly emotive medium that has the power to change how we see the world. As a synergy of music, artistry, design and performance it is clear that its relevance lives on, exaggerating worlds of myth and fiction in order to inspire and influence our own. A terrific, enlightening and educational experience; I would recommended investing in while you can.


‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ is on at the V&A until 25th February 2018.



  • Venetian Dancer © Araminta Pain
  • 18th Century Castro Singer Costume © Araminta Pain
  • Empress Eugénie Dress © Araminta Pain
  • Top Hats Installation © Araminta Pain
  • La Traviata Dress © Araminta Pain
  • Donnatella Barberi Costume Installation © Araminta Pain
  • Leningrad Installation © Araminta Pain