Published on 29/09/17



OPERA: Power, Passion and Politics

Published on 29/09/17


Last week, I went along to the launch of OPERA: Power, Passion and Politics , the V&A’s new exhibition curated in partnership with the Royal Opera House. This impressive new exhibition is a timely reminder of the social relevance opera can have. Especially opera newly written and of its time.

Reading the leader comment in The Guardian on 28.09.17 about the impact of this exhibition, my hope that it may have some impact beyond the usual opera circles has been raised further. I urge anyone to go along and have a fresh think about why it is still vitally important for us to use opera alongside all the performing arts, to explore how we live, think and feel - and what we do.

The exhibition neatly contextualises the new opera Music Theatre Wales is currently performing, The Golden Dragon, which is very much a politically driven drama that holds a mirror up to contemporary British and Western society, particularly our attitude to asylum seekers, refugees, illegal immigrants and trafficking.

This new opera by Peter Eötvös is based on the play by Roland Schimmelpfennig, one of Germany’s most important living playwrights. Schimmelpfennig brings a Brechtian storytelling approach to theatre, which packs a powerful social and political punch through the least didactic, most engaging, and even entertaining way. It is no accident that he started life as a journalist, and brings this forensic insight straight to the stage.

Turning this particular play into an opera was a stroke of genius by Eötvös, not least because it would superficially appear to be anti-operatic in its theatrical language - the performers consistently introduce the multiple characters they are about to play and are never given the chance to delve deep into the psyche or emotions of those characters – the very stuff of opera you might think. But don’t let that mislead you. The emotional climax of The Golden Dragon comes in the most understated and quiet way you can imagine, but with devastating impact dramatically and musically. This sad ending follows the one “aria” of the work, where the young man, The Little One - who has unfortunately died - narrates the journey of his body back home to China. The character never sings about how he feels, and there is certainly no “I am dying” cliché, but the emotional truth of this lost soul, a representative of so many lost lives caused through the trauma of migration, is immensely powerful and carries a vital contemporary message that will resonate as you travel home. Powerful, passionate and political indeed, and as it happens incredibly entertaining too. It starts in a madcap, cartoon world and gradually morphs into something more profound.

I am delighted that on 12th November Music Theatre Wales will be performing the Homecoming Aria of The Little One as part of this amazing exhibition, in theV&A’s Chinese Gallery - the most appropriate of settings. Here the Little One will be surrounded by images and artefacts of his home. A fitting context alongside the opera exhibition itself. As a fully animated, living, breathing and singing exhibit, I think we will show how opera remains a truly contemporary and important vehicle for social reflection and change, and how it can touch the soul of each and every one of us.

Extract from Guardian article 28.09.17:

"The exhibition is a reminder that opera, so often derided as elitist, has played an active role in society and politics throughout its life – sometimes as a direct conductor of political ideas, invariably as a mirror of the power structures that produced it. Though Mozart’s Figaro was a toned-down version of the revolutionary play by Beaumarchais on which it was based (said by Georges Danton to have “killed off the nobility”) it was still a radical artwork, with its clever servants outwitting masters on the public stage. Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth was in the front line of Soviet politics, denounced, in a Pravda editorial of 1936 that almost certainly reflected the personal views of Stalin, as “muddle instead of music” that “tickle[d] the perverted bourgeois taste”.

"Above all, the V&A exhibition is a reminder of the cultural links that bind Europe together … It may be expensive to stage; it may have an aura of exclusivity. But looked at another way, opera, in all its magnificence, is all at once European, open and global. The V&A show’s final images are of an operatic scene that is still vibrant, its works remade for new audiences, shedding new light on our times."

Read the article in full here