POSTED ON 05/01/2018

Opened at the end of September 2017, the V&A’s latest exhibition Opera: Passion, Power and Politics explores the vivid story of opera from its origins in late-Renaissance Italy to the present day. Described by The Guardian as “a game-changing spectacular show”, this is the first time a large-scale institutional exhibition has been dedicated to the subject.

Told through the lens of seven premieres in seven European cities, the exhibition takes guests on an immersive journey through nearly 400 years, culminating in the international explosion of opera in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Having worked closely with the museum’s theatre and performance department on installations such as ‘Glastonbury: Land & Legend’ and ‘Five Truths’, we were chosen to deliver the technical elements for the immersive exhibition.

Working alongside Qwerk, a company who specialise in creative construction, we supplied rigging, lighting, staging, AV and electrical to the project, including delivering the mechanical drive elements to replicate hand operation of a model theatre of 1711. The baroque stage features scenery that raises and lowers, rolling waves and a frolicking mermaid. 

Led by our Director of Special Projects Peter Boott, we needed to create a system for the theatre that was able to withstand 75 shows per day over the five month exhibition period. During an intensive pre-installation design phase, we developed several prototypes in our Leicestershire based warehouse to fine tune the moving elements before heading to Qwerk’s Luton base to build the replica.

“With the theatre performing approximately 1,575 individual mechanic movements each day, the mermaid and the boat will have each travelled over 97 miles by the time the exhibition closes in February” says Boott. “With this in mind, we spent a lot of time fine-tuning each element to maximise reliability. We also designed the system to give us remote access via two web cams, allowing us to monitor the theatre and react to any issues that may occur.”

It wasn’t just the mechanical elements that presented a challenge. We also had to design the exhibition rigging to work against the gallery’s unusual origami-like concertina ceiling.

“There was a lot of pre-planning work involved to make sure we were able to rig all of our equipment at the maximum height possible whilst not breaking up the flow of the exhibition. We produced a 3D visual of the space and from this developed a concept that utilised three different levels of interconnecting truss that followed the path of the exhibition.”

Using technology to help tell its story, Opera: Passion, Power and Politics perfectly demonstrates how the museum experience is changing. Visitors no longer simply want to visit an exhibition, they want to be completely immersed in it. Kate Bailey, Senior Curator and Producer in the theatre and performance department at the V&A, agrees. “I think people have come to expect a more immersive experience rather than just a simple hang. People expect that sense of being transported into different spaces and that’s why it’s really important to think of exhibitions in four dimensions. I tend to begin with a story and a concept and then, rather than thinking of them in terms of objects, I think of them in terms of space, light, sound and vision. By working with companies such as Hawthorn, we’ve pushed it so far with light, sound and video and the idea of being able to integrate those big show moments into exhibitions.”

With the show being the first exhibition held in the V&A’s new Sainsbury Gallery, one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe, the project wasn’t without it’s challenges. “Working in any new gallery is always a challenge, especially for the designers and the producers. You don’t know what the infrastructure is like and there’s a huge leap of imagination in the creative process” comments Bailey. “Because the gallery is such a big space and the exhibition is on such a large scale, we needed that impact and I think that one of the great things about working with Hawthorn is that they understand that challenge. We have the objects, which are magical in their own right, but with a subject like theatre, you need to be able to produce the scale and the impact and that’s where the technical elements are invaluable.”

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics will be running at the V&A until Sunday 25th February.

Photos: Marion Burnier