Interview: Kate Bailey, curator of ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ at the Victoria & Albert Museum

Kate Bailey talks technology and opera, the future of the art form, and what gives her sleepless nights.

From British rock in the 1950s to Russian avant-garde theatre design, Kate Bailey’s tenure at the Victoria & Albert Museum has seen her bring to life an astonishing range of genres and topics. And her latest exhibition is no exception. Spanning 400 years and taking place in the newly opened Sainsbury Gallery, ‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ is an undeniable triumph of cultural diversity, technological innovation and utmost accessibility.

Intimate beginnings

You enter the exhibition through a theatrical red velvet curtain, taking you to the very start of the art form. Immediately, you can’t help but feel like a modern explorer who’s looking beyond the usual on-stage spectacle, left to uncover the story behind the age-old dust sitting on the curtain.

“We wanted it to be like a labyrinth, to transport you to the tight streets of Venice”, Kate explains, “you get a sense of opera being invented in this city of music, art and architecture.”

Pur ti Miro, the first piece you hear, does just that. Instead of treating exhibitiongoers to an existing performance of this musical excerpt, a special piece of audio was created using a binaural microphone which made for an immersive 360-degree effect. “Making that recording was an incredibly intimate way of showing the singers rehearsing” Kate says, “they’re really with you, entering your ears in a really chilling way.”

This intimacy is enhanced by the minimal harpsichord accompaniment that transports you to a time where opera was in its early years, yet its raw potential can undoubtedly still be heard.

Priorities

As you walk around the exhibition space, it’s impossible not to be drawn towards the artefacts on show, which range from costumes to installations, via some eye-watering rarities – all accompanied by the ever-changing operatic soundtrack from different centuries. And if there’s anything to notice about this musical style across its broad history, it’s that it’s littered with intricacies, powerful dynamics and most importantly, intense emotion, all of which can only be felt with the help of lifelike sound reproduction.

“… knowing that we had Bowers & Wilkins headphones, we needed to do some exceptional things with the sound.”

As the V&A were working in collaboration with the Royal Opera House and with Bowers & Wilkins as the official sound partner, Kate knew that getting the audio right was the “main priority” since the idea’s inception. “Opera enthusiasts are very particular about sound, it has to have that richness and dynamic”, she explains, “I’d say it was the thing that gave me the most sleepless nights. If the sound experience wasn’t right, it doesn’t matter what people are looking at, it wouldn’t have been a successful exhibition. It was also great to work with a creative team who were focused on the importance of the sound experience. The sound design was created with David Sheppard, a world-leading sound designer and engineer who has worked across different spaces and genres.”

4D experience

But getting the sound quality right was only a small part of the project vision. The music has also been set at different levels depending on the time period and proximity to the performances for the listener, adding to the sense of dynamism within the music. A fine example of this happens in the Milan section of the exhibition, where the loudest volume level is set to represent the close proximity between you and the chorus of singers, and in doing so, dramatically informs you of the sense of space.

As you wander around the exhibition, you can’t help but notice the seamless transitions between each musical excerpt. Positioned around the gallery space are infrared triggers which make this happen. They activate the music on your P5s as you delve deeper into the heart of the art form. This builds on the previous audio technology used for recent exhibitions, and is the first time an infra-red triggered system has been used for music in the V&A, which Kate describes as a “liberating and totally 4D” experience. It also minimizes any compression of sound quality or frequency.

It’s this innovative use of technology that Kate believes opera shares direct parallels with as a constantly evolving art form. “Whether it’s the violins in Venice, or Mozart’s newest piano, or the acoustics in La Scala, technology and opera have this incredible intertwined story.” Technology practitioners were brought in to ensure the end result of the exhibition was a melting pot of exciting and innovative outcomes, especially in sound and video departments. “And I think we’re at the cutting edge of what could come next”, she excitedly states.

21st century and beyond

Nadja Michael (as Salome) in the production “Salome” at the Royal Opera House, in London. (Photo by robbie jack/Corbis via Getty Images)

There is no denying that there is still some apprehension towards opera; for some, it is seen as a high-brow art form, exclusively tailored towards the middle and upper classes, for others it may be a lack of knowledge of the musical style. But Kate is keen to dispel these beliefs: “You do not get that extreme of emotions anywhere else – if you don’t understand the language, it doesn’t matter. Read the story before you go, or just sit back and enjoy the operatic multi-media experience.”

And Kate has many reasons to be cheerful, as there has been a recent surge in the numbers of people listening to classical music who are under the age of under 35. As many as 1.2 million tune in to the genre each week on Classic FM, and Kate suspects this is due to the urge to switch off from the ever-connected society we live in, and for this need to “to balance your hip-hop and your rap.”

There are seemingly more connections between opera and modern music than people might think, too.

Opera is very much an urban art form – much like grime – where composers and artists write about their respective cities, and in doing so, question their own societies. “Whether that’s Mozart at age 27 or a young Shostakovich, there is relevance”, Kate explains. In fact, this year grime artist JME created an operatic version of his song ‘Man Don’t Care’ – so it wouldn’t be completely outrageous to suggest that somewhere in a parallel universe opera and grime live harmoniously together as a tool for urban and social commentaries.

Manet, Edouard (1832-1883): Music in the Tuileries Gardens, 1862. London, National Gallery

But what does the future hold for opera? As this monumental exhibition proves, opera is steeped in a rich history, one that constantly embraces the future through innovation, and engaging the public with these innovations is where Kate believes the exciting challenge lies. “I think Opera Houses and the commissioners of opera have to go out in their cities and intersect with their citizens in a more direct way, and this will encourage different opportunities.”

That’s one part of the mission – connecting with contemporary themes is certainly another. There’s a growing pop-up opera scene; a creative hub comprised of conservatoire graduates and emerging directors who are thinking outside of the box for an audience beyond the realms of mainstream opera houses. This, and the growing use of VR in the entertainment industry, could pave the way for even more experimentation – and might just be how opera reinvents itself for the next 400 years, at least.

‘Opera: Passion, Power and Politics’ is on until February 25th 2018 in the newly renovated Sainsbury Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum. Click here for more information and to buy tickets.

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