Opera: Passion, Power and Politics

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© Victoria and Albert Museum

After the success of Pink Floyd: Their Mortal Remains, the Victoria and Albert Museum has moved on to a completely different genre of music. Using the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, the V&A are taking visitors on a journey through four centuries of European history, demonstrating the evolution of opera music and performances leading up to its contemporary interpretations of the 20th and 21st-centuries. Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven particular premieres in seven different European cities whilst it not only celebrates the exceptional style of music but explores its effects on society, politics and the changes in the developing world.

In a darkened display room with dramatic lighting, the exhibition weaves through corridors of temporary walls decorated with relevant images, original artworks and a wealth of information. With striking typography, information is presented in an exciting manner, revealing the history of opera and the countries involved.

Opera first came on the scene in Italy during the 17th century, particularly in the cultural city of Venice. Unfortunately, as a result of a plague which killed off 30% of its population, Venice was struggling to maintain its maritime trade and political status. Despite this, it still remained a popular destination for tourists and pleasure seekers, also attracting artists and revolutionaries. Its international status brought a wealth of different cultures to the realm, offering entertainment such as carnivals and gambling.

Initially, opera was a production of spectacular costumes, dances and music, which were put on to impress visiting public figures and to show off the wealth of the theatre owners. The stories acted out were usually mythological retellings that contained parallels with the present day, thus placing current rulers in a positive light. However, in order to boost the Venetian population, opera was opened up to the public as a means of attracting more tourists and visitors.

The first public opera that was not restricted to courtly audiences was L’incoronazione di Poppea, with music composed by Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) and a libretto written by Giovanni Francesco Busenello (1598-1659). Premiering at the Teatro Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice in 1642, the opera describes the ambition of Poppaea, the mistress of Roman emperor Nero, to be crowned Empress. This was the first opera to recall a historical event rather than a fictionalised story and focused on morality and virtue. Full of problematic characters, it glorified lust and ambition.

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View of Venice, print, Frederick de Wit, Netherlands. Museum no. E.1539-1900. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

From Italy, opera quickly caught on in London due to its influx of foreign visitors. The Reformation during the reign of Henry VIII brought thousands of refugees to the city along with international influences. Covent Garden, in the west end of London, was an artistic community full of coffee houses where many would come to be entertained or partake in political debates. It was only natural for opera to find a home here amongst the existing artists and performers.

As indicated in large letters on the painted walls of the gallery, “G. F. Handel – young German composer takes city by storm”. At the young age of 26, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composed the music for the first Italian language opera written for the London stage. Translated from Aaron Hill’s (1685-1750) English version by Italian poet Giacomo Rossi, Rinaldo is a story about love, war and redemption set at the time of the First Crusades (1095-99) demonstrating the conflict between the Saracens and Christians. For the English audience, this would have felt familiar after the not so distant antagonism between Catholics and Protestants.

Impressively, Handel composed the music within a couple of weeks and Rinaldo was opened to the public on 24th February 1711 at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket. At this point in the exhibition, the V&A excels itself with a scenographic wooden installation representing part of the 18th-century theatre. A short puppet-like show performs intermittently whilst visitors listen to Il Vostro Maggio – an aria performed by mermaids during Act II of Rinaldo – on headsets provided by the museum.

As with any innovation, opera received its fair share of criticism from the public and became a topic of debate in the neighbouring coffee houses. The artist William Hogarth (1697-1764) illustrated the fears many had about the foreign genre becoming a threat to traditional British Theatre, particularly Shakespeare. These etchings are displayed as part of the exhibition.

The V&A fast forwards seventy-five years to Vienna where another young musician is making his name known. This was, of course, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91). In the late 1700s, Vienna was the heart of European music and opera, which was encouraged by the “musical king” Emperor Joseph II of Habsburg (1749-90).

The philosophical movement, known as the Enlightenment (or the “Age of Reason”), was changing the way Europeans thought, particularly in regard to individual rights. This, along with the Vienesse love of music, made Vienna the perfect location to perform Mozart’s society-questioning opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro).

Le Nozze di Figaro is a comic opera in four acts with an Italian libretto. It contains a range of characters from all classes of society and radically gives servants a central role. Previously, domestic workers were absurd figures to be laughed at, whereas this opera tells the story of Figaro and Susanna, two servants who succeed in getting married despite the corrupt efforts of their philandering employer.

“O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost! O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!”

Hebrew Chorus, Nabucco

The exhibition moves on to Milan, which in the 1840s was still under Austrian rule. Throughout the 19th century, the political and social movement Risorgimento or Italian Unification was gradually reunifying Italian states to consolidate the Kingdom of Italy. The famous opera house La Scala was often used as a venue for political discussion about independence and, therefore, was an ideal location for the first performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Nabucco.

Based on the biblical books of Jeremiah and Daniel, Nabucco follows the plight of the Jews facing abuse from the Babylonian King Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar II). Despite the historical context, the audience would have been able to relate to the passion about national identity and fight for freedom, thus strengthening their own resolve.

With the rise of Nationalism affecting many European countries, new operatic styles began to develop. Two examples appeared in France in the mid-19th century, “Opéra Comique” and “Grand Opéra”. The former was an amalgamation of spoken word with sung arias and became popular with the public. The latter combined expressive scenery, singing and ballet. Richard Wagner’s (1813-83) Tannhäuser followed the form of Grand Opéra, however, he began to challenge tradition by blending orchestra and voice instead of having several different aria performances.

Tannhäuser und der Sängerkrieg auf Wartburg, to use its full title, was first performed at the Parisian Théâtre le Peletier on 13th March 1861 much to the delight of radical thinkers. It was not only Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk (all-embracing art form) that upset the traditional audience, it was the choice of themes. Sexuality, spirituality and personal struggle were concepts that disagreed with bourgeois tastes. Tannhäuser combines two legends and focuses on the struggle between sacred and sacrilegious love, naturally causing much discomfort amongst spectators.

It is the 20th century that really radicalised the opera genre, as graphically demonstrated in this exhibition. New ideas in psychology and feminism brought new themes for composers to experiment with, much to the audience’s dismay. In Dresden, the Fin de siècle culture was changing the perceptions of women, an attribute that Richard Strauss (1864-1949) took hold of and ran with it his psycho-sexual opera, Salome. The Semperoper opened the revolutionary opera in 1905 with an orchestra of over one hundred instruments. Salome only lasts for one act, but the snippet the V&A shows on a digital screen suggests this is more than enough – particularly for those with a more sensitive stomach.

“Salomania” had affected artists and poets for a number of years before Strauss brought it to the opera house. Salome is the biblical character best known for her desire for the decapitated head of John the Baptist. The “Dance of the Seven Veils” at the end of the story – a term first used by Oscar Wilde – contains erotic dancing and copious amounts of (fake) blood. Strauss’s version of Salome emphasises the passion and hysteria in the women contesting their suppressed status at the beginning of the 1900s.

The final destination on the V&A’s opera tour is Leningrad at the commencement of Stalin’s dictatorship. With avant-garde experiments being all the rage, the young Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-75) composed his Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District sharing the writing of the libretto with Alexander Preys (1905-42). Based on a novella by Nikolai Leskov (1831-95), the opera covers themes of rural life, adultery and murder (obviously, since it is derived from the original Shakespearean character).

A common theme between the seven operas explored by the V&A is the discomfort and unrest they caused for some of the spectators. This was no different for Lady Macbeth, however, the person it upset the most was the infamous Stalin who only wanted Socialist Realism depicted in any art form. The heroine did not match Stalin’s ideal Soviet woman, therefore Shostakovich’s opera was condemned to political censorship.

Comparing the first public opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea, with this 20th-century composition goes to show the major metamorphosis the genre has undergone in a period of 400 years. The V&A have presented this exhibition in an outstanding way, combining visual and audio to creates a seamless journey from 1642 to 1934.

Paintings from well-known artists provide glimpses into the way opera goers dressed and behaved in the past centuries, which gradually transform to photographic examples as the exhibition nears its end. Objects from original manuscripts and Mozart’s piano, to modern stage props, are located around the exhibition, adding to the historical aspect and providing more to look at than screens and walls.

Before the exit, although accessible from other areas of the gallery, is a large space full of enormous screens showing clips from a range of operas. With the audio headset, visitors can pick up the music and sit and listen to the various compositions. This video-audio experience uses a selection of 20th and 21st-century operas to quickly take viewers from its origins in Renaissance Europe to the global phenomenon it is today.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is an extraordinary feat on behalf of the V&A. The amount of time, effort and research that has gone into its construction is evident in the amazing outcome. Educational from both a historical and political perspective, this exhibition will excite opera fans and interest those that are new to the genre – although not suitable for younger visitors.

After attending this exhibition, opera will no longer merely be a form of entertainment. Who knew how political and socially challenging a seemingly harmless production could be? Opera: Passion, Power and Politics certainly challenges opinions and reveals that it is not only about music and singing.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is on now until Sunday, 25 February 2018. Tickets are £19.00 and advance booking is recommended. 

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The Foundling Museum

Where artists and children have inspired each other since 1740

Charities play a vital role in societies throughout the world. Thanks to volunteers and funding, many lives have been changed for the better. From international organisations to independent health-focused charities, so much is being done in an attempt to improve the conditions of those less fortunate. Coram is the UKs leading charity in the field of adoption services and dates back to the 1700s when it was first established as The Foundling Hospital by a man named Thomas Coram.

Thomas Coram was concerned about the desperate poverty on the streets of London, particularly in the case of children. At the beginning of the 18th century, 75% of children under five died as a result of neglect or disease due to the increasing destitute state of Londoners.

Although the idea of charity organisations existed across the continent, Britain had yet to jump on the bandwagon. Therefore, thanks to Coram’s determination, the first charity was born. By taking in babies from mothers without the means to look after them, The Foundling Hospital greatly improved and saved the lives of thousands of children.

The hospital continued to protect children from the disease-ridden streets until the 1900s when attitudes towards children’s emotional needs changed. In 1953, the hospital ceased to take in children, instead,  renaming themselves the Thomas Coram Foundation for Children, focused on nursery, welfare and foster services. Now shortened to Coram, the charity is registered as an adoption agency and continues to give the best possible start in life for as many children as possible.

The original buildings of The Foundling Hospital no longer exist, however, the headquarters in Brunswick Square, which opened in 1939, does. As of June 2004, this building has been open to the public and renamed The Foundling Museum.

The Foundling Museum contains a wealth of knowledge about the original hospital, its patrons and its former pupils. In order to fund the charity, artists donated works to be exhibited to members of the public, thus creating London’s first art gallery. The most important supporter from the initial conception was painter and engraver William Hogarth (1697-1764). Having had a precarious childhood himself, Hogarth was eager to become part of a charity for children of the poor. He donated several artworks, including the hospital’s first piece, a portrait of Thomas Coram. Another of Hogarth’s paintings The March of the Guards to Finchley (1750) was also donated. Both are on display in the museum.

William Hogarth was also involved with the design of some sections of the original hospital – a few of which have been preserved and re-erected in the museum’s building. He also designed the Foundling Hospital Coat of Arms (1747), which was proudly displayed above the entrance to the residence.

It was not only painters who contributed towards The Foundling Hospital, musicians and composers were also eager to play a part. Alongside Hogarth, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) was significantly valuable to the hospital. Handel’s support began in 1749 when he offered to conduct a benefit concert. The audience included a great number of distinctive people including the Prince and Princess of Wales. Over 1000 people attended and, amongst some of Handel’s known works, the Foundling Hospital Anthem, written by the composer himself, was performed for the first time. A year later, Handel conducted another benefit concert, this time performing his famous Messiah.

Handel’s Messiah became a significant musical work for The Foundling Hospital, being performed on an annual basis. Collectively, these concerts raised £7000, which today would be worth well over a million. On Handel’s death in 1759, a copy of the score was left to the hospital in his will, so that the charity could continue benefitting from the concerts for years to come.

The Museum celebrates Handel’s life and his contribution to the charity with his very own gallery located on the top floor of the building. As well as a portrait and plaster bust, the room displays items relating to the conductor and his Messiah. Most importantly, protected behind a screen, are the original will and codicils signed by Handel, stating his bequest to The Foundling Hospital.  

The donated artwork takes up most of the space in the museum, lining the walls of rooms and staircases. Nevertheless, part of the ground floor has been devoted to the history of the hospital. In glass cases, are clothing, bedding, crockery, receipts, registers and so forth belonging to the original inhabitants of The Foundling Hospital. Most noteworthy are the cabinets containing tokens that mothers left with their babies.

From the moment the hospital doors were open, the greatest care was taken in noting all the items that arrived with each child, a physical description and any significant marks to distinguish which child belonged to which mother in the event of a reunion in the future.  However, as children grew, their features would alter, making it more difficult to prove identity. Since names were changed in order to respect the mother’s anonymity, the hospital encouraged the parents to leave a token of some sort for the child to keep, from which any future claims could be accurately affirmed.

The tokens on display show an example of the range of items used to identify children. Each is unique in some way, be it a piece of embroidery, an item of jewellery or a disfigured or personalised coin with a name or number etched into it. It is amazing that these did not go astray during the children’s lives at the hospital, and that so many still remain intact today.

Although photographs exist of the hospital’s later years, paintings are relied on to understand the situation during the 18th century. The majority of the paintings, particularly those along the staircase, are portraits of governors and other notable names associated with The Foundling Hospital. Yet, hidden in certain rooms, are remarkable scenes depicting life in and around the hospital. A particular series of note can be found in the Committee Room alongside Hogarth’s The March of the Guards to Finchley. 

Emma Brownlow (1832-1905) produced a series of four paintings that reveal the life at The Foundling Hospital. Initially, it may come as a surprise that a woman of that era had the opportunity to study and paint in oils, however, on learning her father was John Brownlow, one of the hospital’s secretaries and ex-foundling, it becomes clear why Emma was such a reliable source of accurate representation. Growing up around the foundlings, Emma was able to illustrate the uniforms, the admission system, the infirmary, and the emotions and behaviour of the children. More of Emma Brownlow’s paintings can be found elsewhere in the museum.

Emma’s father, the aforementioned John Brownlow, had some correspondence with the author, Charles Dickens, who, like him, had a difficult childhood and was ashamed of his upbringing. It is thought that Dickens used both his own experiences and his observances at The Foundling Hospital to accurately portray his celebrated characters.

The paintings of The Foundling Hospital and its patrons add to the historical knowledge imparted by the museum. The Court Room, however, contains four large artworks that are metaphorical rather than representational. These illustrate stories of the benevolence and deliverance of children in either religion, mythology or history. The artists liken the foundling children to biblical characters such as Moses and Ishmael, and one chose to paint Little Children Brought to Christ (James Wills, 1746) to emphasise the importance of all children.

The most famous artist displayed in the Court Room is, of course, William Hogarth with his Moses Brought Before Pharaoh’s Daughter (1746). Assuming most people know the famous Bible story, the significance of this scene is the similarity of the return of Moses to his adopted mother from his wet nurse (his real mother), with the way in which the foundlings lived the first five years of their lives. After passing medical tests, babies were sent to responsible wet nurses in the country to be fed and looked after, until, at the age of five, they returned to the hospital to live and attend school.

Just like for visitors during the 1760s, famous artworks are on show for everyone to see. Despite The Foundling Hospital’s closure, the charity (Coram) is still running, therefore artists are continuing to donate artwork to be included in what is now the museum. The basement of the building contains the perfect space for temporary exhibitions for 21st-century artists to showcase work influenced by stories and history of the foundlings.

Well-known names such as Tracey Emin, Quentin Blake and David Shrigley have all appeared in exhibitions during the past ten years. Incidentally, the most famous and popular of all the displays is the current presentation of Jacqueline Wilson’s Hetty Feather. Written during 2008 and recently adapted for television, Hetty Feather tells the story of a courageous 19th-century foundling, bringing the past alive for 21st-century children.

Picturing Hetty Feather is running until 3rd September 2017, converging with the school summer holidays so that all Jacqueline Wilson fans around London can attend. Props and costumes from the CBBC production are on display with the opportunity for children to dress up as a foundling and sit in a typical 19th-century classroom. The opportunity to view an interview with the famous author is available, and it is impossible to miss the illustrations by the respected Nick Sharratt.

There is something for everyone at The Foundling Museum to appease children, historians and art aficionados alike. Immersed in history, the museum tells a positive story of a cause that has developed and shaped the way children in care are treated today. Oftentimes, comments are made about the lack of modern techniques that could have prevented disasters of the past, but in spite of the absence of digital technology, the founders and governors, particularly Coram, Hogarth and Handel, were dedicated enough to create a highly successful charity.

The Foundling Museum is open every day except Mondays, charging £8.25 (£5.50 concessions), with an added £3 for the temporary exhibition. Children and National Trust members are welcome free of charge.

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Untitled, David Shrigley, 2012

Eastward Ho!

Not long ago, I visited the Museum of London with a friend because … why not? Whilst we were discovering the history of London (from prehistoric eras to the present day), we were both drawn to a particular painting hanging on the wall in the Expanding Cities – 1670s-1850s gallery. Neither of us were familiar with the artwork, nor the artist, but the bright colours were powerful and enticed me to have a closer look.

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Eastward Ho!

The painting, I learnt, was called Eastward Ho! by a man named Henry Nelson O’Neil, and was completed in c.1857/8. A minuscule notecard was situated to the left of the frame, providing an inadequate explanation and description of the artwork:

Soldiers are shown boarding a ship at Gravesend, leaving to fight in the ‘Indian Mutiny’ – the first Indian war of Independence. They are saying their final farewells to their loved ones. This immensely colourful and vibrant painting was Henry Nelson O’Neil’s most popular work.

The basic scenario has been explained, but who was Henry Nelson O’Neil? Why did he choose to paint this particular situation? How comes, if this work was so popular, I have never heard of it, nor him?  Let’s find out. Henry Nelson O’Neil, who are you?

Henry Nelson O’Neil

Henry Nelson O’Neil was born in Russia on 7th January 1817, however he spent the majority of his life in England, where he moved with his parents in 1823. Despite his origin of birth, his parents were British nationals, therefore his brief Russian beginnings had very little impact upon his future. Nothing is known about the O’Neil family, nor his childhood, until he entered the art scene in 1836 after enrolling at the Royal Academy.

The year 1838 saw O’Neil’s first exhibited artwork on display at the academy. Simply titled The Student, this picture – sadly unknown today – sparked off his career, resulting in almost 100 of his paintings adorning the academy’s walls during his life time. O’Neil produced a new painting almost yearly, experimenting with a range of subject matter. Art historians can assume the artist was an educated and cultured individual on account of his interest in painting scenes from literature and the Bible, as well as historical incidents.

O’Neil opted for striking colours, however his compositions were often criticised as faulty. It appeared that O’Neil was averse to demonstrating negative emotion in his artwork, resulting in unrealistic contexts. A particular example is titled The Parting Cheer (1861) which showed the emigration of British and European families at a time when this would have caused heartbreak, worry and despair. However, as the title suggests, O’Neil painted a cheerful atmosphere, implying that emigration was a cause for celebration rather than a time of uncertainty.

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The Last Moments of Mozart

More popular were O’Neil’s romantic scenes, particularly ones portraying the deaths of Mozart and Raphael. The Last Moments of Mozart (1849) shows the composer, moments from death, listening to a performance of his Requiem.

O’Neil also had a go at writing, publishing Lectures on Painting delivered at the Royal Academy containing a selection of talks he gave to students at the academy. Moving away from art, O’Neil also attempted a few pieces of literature, however he supposably was not all that successful in this venture. He also had a passion for music and enjoyed playing the violin. It may be assumed that O’Neil continued working until his death on 13th March 1880. His body is interred in Kensal Green Cemetery.

Compared with other artists of the era, O’Neil does not stand out amongst the greats, and today remains virtually unknown. The most significant endeavour during his lifetime is arguably his connection to the group of artists known as The Clique.

The Clique

Formed by Richard Dadd in the late 1830s, The Clique was a group made up of an assemblage of British artists, Henry Nelson O’Neil being amongst them. Not much evidence remains of The Clique‘s existence, however it is supposed that the group met up to sketch and receive opinions on their artwork.

The Clique apparently rejected academic high art in favour of genre painting – a term associated with the celebrated William Hogarth, who was probably a great influence to the group. They believed, like Hogarth, that art should be judged by the public, not by preexisting academic ideals.

Hopefully the Museum of London will continue to display Eastward Ho! as part of the exhibition, not only because it represents a particular event in London, but because it is one of the only remaining evidences of O’Neil’s existence. Although he may not have made himself known to the world, it would be a great shame to lose all recognition in the future.