And of course, it’s a better way to get people to come in and see your show.
“A Night at the Opera,” an exhibition that opened last week at the Library of Congress and will travel to Disney Hall in Los Angeles in 2014, represents a lot of goals packed into a single show of about 50 objects. This makes it a fitting tribute to an art form that involves several different art forms — visual arts and theater, dance and music — packed into a single performance. And like opera, the result is an imperfect reflection of a glorious set of unrealizable possibilities. The Library of Congress has vast archives: original scores and correspondence, photographs and set designs. But it’s always a challenge to try to evoke one of the most vivid and outsize art forms through the display of pieces of paper.
Opera buffs are as likely to feel as tantalized as fulfilled by glimpsing only individual items from the many archives and collections within the library’s holdings. A gouache-and-watercolor set design by the Italian art nouveau artist Galileo Chini for the last scene of the world-premiere production of Puccini’s “Turandot” in 1926, resplendent in gold and blue with Oriental statuary and a thicket of choristers — an image that could hold its own on any wall — becomes a mouthwatering tease when you learn that it is one of a set of four Chini images for this production in the library’s coffers, three of which you’re not getting to see.
Those who don’t care for opera, meanwhile, are a hard sell for a genre often mistakenly perceived as elitist and obscure — however much Bugs Bunny you play them at the entrance.
“A Night at the Opera” is meant at least in part as a nod to opera’s populist side. Rather than a show about opera in the Platonic sense, it’s conceived as a show about opera’s image, and the way people have experienced going to the opera, over the years. This, at least, is the intention of its curators, Raymond A. White and James E. Wintle, though they also wanted to make sure to touch on opera in every country (Germany and Austria and Italy, but also France, Russia and the United States). The latter goal is easier than the former, given that their scope is restricted to objects on paper: relics of opera rather than the living, breathing, rivers-of-sound-at-the-top-of-your-lungs art.
Opera of old
In the 18th and 19th centuries, before the advent of recording, if you wanted to hear an opera, you played it at home, on your keyboard, yourself. Piano-vocal scores (as opposed to the full orchestral score used by a conductor) were not the province of professional singers, but of the general audience. Thus the show’s inclusion of several such scores, such as the first edition of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” printed in 1787. For today’s general audience, not necessarily music readers and not able, in an exhibition, to turn the pages for themselves, the main focus of such scores is the illustration on the title page: in this early conception, the youthful Giovanni being collared by the Commendatore looks more like a naughty schoolboy than the Latin lover he later became in the minds of aficionados.