Passion, Power and Politics: How the V&A brought the story of opera to life

By Mark Sinclair

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is the first exhibition to take place in the V&A’s vast new Sainsbury gallery. Staged in partnership with the Royal Opera House, the exhibition tells the story of opera’s development as an art form within the social and political contexts of seven premieres that took place across seven different cities.

The exhibition moves chronologically from Venice – and the premier of Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea in 1642 – through to St Petersburg, where Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk was first performed in 1934, taking in key operas in London, Vienna, Milan, Paris and Dresden along the way.

One of the aims of the show is to challenge the preconceptions of opera and Passion, Power and Politics does so through an innovative structure and design approach, employing responsive sound technologies and an expressive graphics system. It’s an accessible, enjoyably immersive exhibition where the visceral power of live performance is brought right to the fore of the visitor experience.

Photograph by Simon Ellis

While there are certainly objects that visitors might expect to see in an exhibition dedicated to opera (instruments, librettos, costumes, paintings and so on), they are juxtaposed with a more informal graphics scheme that incorporates gaffer tape, plastic signage and handwritten notes to add an expressive tone to the information displays.

Equally, the sound design requires no input from the visitor other than putting on a pair of high-end headphones – the soundscape immerses the visitor in the space, but doesn’t rely on any interaction.

Photograph by Simon Ellis

Studio Socio Design were commissioned to design the 2D aspects of the show and worked as part of a team with 3D designers Curious Space and Alison Carmichael, who produced the hand-lettering that features on the walls.

The sound design by David Sheppard of Sound Intermedia enables visitors to experience specially-recorded versions of various operas as they walk around the space.

Photograph by Simon Ellis

“The world of opera brings with it certain expectations of formality and exclusivity, but in fact opera is a very visceral art form – sex and death crop up a lot, and there’s at least one severed head in the exhibition,” says Nic Carter, Art Director at Socio.

“So a key challenge for the design team was to somehow shed those preconceptions and present opera as an emotional and immersive experience. 3D designers Curious Space conceived the exhibition as a series of tableaux within a backstage scene dock, soundtracked by a responsive headphone experience that ebbs and flows as you move around the space.”

Photograph courtesy V&A

Sheppard says that he was conscious of similar concerns. “Opera is not to everyone’s taste, but the exhibition is designed to appeal on many levels and has hopefully encouraged non opera-enthusiasts to take a look,” he says. “This was another factor when considering how music and sound should integrate in the overall experience.

“We wanted to immerse the visitor inside the world of opera visually, technically, aesthetically and even practically by placing items within backstage spaces and using staging from performances,” Sheppard adds.

“Each room has a focus on the creation of opera, whether it be composing, directing, singing or conducting. At the centre of the whole experience is the sonic immersion that is continuous throughout a visit.”

Photograph by Simon Ellis

From the outset, Socio were keen to avoid anything that could be thought of as a convention of opera, Carter explains – so there is no gold leaf or Bodoni-style lettering to be seen, no references to historical styles from each of the periods covered, for example.

“Instead we were inspired by the things we found backstage –,” Carter explains, “improvised gaffer tape signage, hand scribbled notes on the back of theatrical flats and very functional, routed plastic heath and safety notices”.

Photograph by Simon Ellis

Socio created a series of alphabets from tape based upon the proportions of Fakt, the typeface used throughout the space, says Carter. “These were then photographed and recreated in real gaffer tape on the walls of the exhibition space. This sounds straightforward enough, but it required a series of templates and stencils to achieve the right balance between consistency and an improvised handmade quality.”

Giving the graphic language an informal quality meant that it became dynamic when placed up against some of the most classical objects on display. “Tucking the edge of a handwritten note or gaffer tape line behind the gold frame of a painting really activates both the object and the graphic,” says Carter. “Hopefully this slightly dislodges the object from its historical context and helps visitors to see it in the here and now, and somehow relevant to their own lives.”

Photograph by Simon Ellis

Alison Carmichael was then commissioned to create hand lettering. “The lettering looks very natural, but was actually very tightly briefed and went through many iterations to reach the achieve the look we were after,” says Carter.

“We were inspired by the notebooks of production designer Alison Chitty, so using those references Alison devised a style that would have the right feel while also satisfying the museum’s criteria for accessibility – not an easy thing to do, but the curators were very open-minded and understood what we were trying to achieve.”

The perimeter wall of the show features a continuous 5m-high, 120m-long graphic that carries the section and opera titles, alongside handwritten notes on the themes and cultural and historical context of each opera. “These handwritten elements act as the notes of the director – or curator – and provide a running theme,” adds Carter. “To use [the] appropriate terminology, they form a kind of ‘graphic libretto’ for the exhibition.”

Photograph courtesy V&A

Presenting seven significant operas within the social context of their premières is an interesting way of getting visitors familiar with the content – so the work is situated amid the ideas of “revolution, gender politics, political censorship, the making of new cities,” says Carter.

“With a series of different immersive environments there’s the potential for the experience to be quite disorientating, so while the theatrical tableaux reflect the time and place of the première of each opera, the graphic elements provide a consistent backbone throughout the exhibition.”

Photograph by Simon Ellis

To make the journey around the exhibition a seamless experience Sheppard says he decided to provide each space with an acoustic ambience created with surround recordings and multichannel reverbs, sampled from actual opera houses and theatres. These were then mixed for headphones using ‘binaural encoding’, essentially ‘surround’ for headphones.

“We recorded some of the music extracts in this way, too,” he explains. “[There’s] a duet of two soprano singers who circle around you and come close to you as they sing – and the Royal Opera House chorus that you stand in the middle of as they rehearse Verdi on the ROH stage.”

A series of other music extracts were also placed in reverbs and mixed with additional processing, says Sheppard, “to bring some distance and reality to the listening experience rather than simply up close and in your ears.”

Photograph by Simon Ellis

“The choices of ambient backdrops and locations of where sounds begin and end were all designed to provide context for the music, to try and create a natural sense of it happening rather than encountering something abruptly or confusing the visitor,” he says.

“The ambiences also bring some narrative with moments that take you to the war-torn streets of Milan or inside an imagined soundscape for Stalin’s Leningrad.”

Photograph courtesy V&A

“The biggest challenge technically was to make the sound experience work using an audio-guide system developed for much simpler installations,” Shappard explains. “The device that is worn contains all the audio for the exhibition and each sound is triggered using infra-red sensors built into the walls and cabinets of the various spaces.

“This is the approach that has been used for many years with sound in museums and galleries, but for it to work for us we had to collaborate with the supplier – Tonwelt guiding solutions from Berlin – to upgrade their firmware to allow sound to be crossfaded from one to another. This had not been tried or used before but was crucial in order to make the journey seamless.”

Photograph courtesy V&A

“We created a series of controls that made how sounds blended and crossed flexible so we could fine-tune the mix on-site,” he adds. “This along with the placement and control of the infra-red beams was the most time-consuming and challenging part of the installation.”

The choice of headphones became another essential technical element for Sheppard. “With the dynamic range and richness of sounds that come from the music of opera, the device that delivered this had to be audiophile approved and equally comfortable to wear given they could be on for 90 minutes,” he says.

“Thankfully, early on in the process we were partnered by Bowers and Wilkins whose dedication to audio quality took away any worries about this with their P5 headphones.”

Photograph by Simon Ellis

Passion, Power and Politics brings the experience of opera to life through a clever combination of both visual and sound experiences – and the result is a seamless exploration of 400 years of the form.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is at the V&A in London until February 25 2018. See vam.ac.uk/exhibitions/opera, sociodesign.co.uk and soundintermedia.tumblr.com

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