Lifting the curtain on the magical story of opera in Muscat

London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is taking its immersive musical exhibition on a world tour

Victoria and Albert Museum's Opera: 400 Years of Passion at the House of Musical Arts, Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman. Khalid AlBusaidi / ROHM
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The Victoria and Albert ­Museum's latest ­exhibition is a musical tale of six ­cities. The famed arts ­institution, based in ­London, has made its Middle ­Eastern debut – with the Royal Opera House Muscat the first stop on the international tour of its latest showcase Opera: 400 Years of Passion.

Running until March 14 and held within the venue’s newest performance and exhibition space, the House of Musical Arts, the exhibition is a fluid and kinetic experience.

It begins with visitors putting on sturdy over-ear headphones, as music is the star of the show.

Each facet of the ­exhibition triggers a seamless change of musical piece, as we are taken through rooms tracing four centuries of opera's ­development across several ­European cities.

From the sophistication of ­compositions by the likes of ­Mozart and Wagner to the ­dazzling opera costumes from the V&A's archives, the exhibition examines the trajectory of opera. It follows what was initially elitist ­entertainment in the private courts of 15th century Italy to its arrival in the dynamic ­Arabian Gulf with the opening of the ­stunning Royal Opera House Muscat in 2011.

The exhibition is as accessible as it is detailed and a good hour is needed to truly take in the information and luxuriate in the elegant music on offer. It all leaves you inspired and rather drained by the end, due to the multi-sensory approach.

But, as curator Kate Bailey says, the exhibition needed to be a fully immersive experience to tell the tale of such a ­celebrated art form. "And that's because opera really brings together all the arts – that's what is really unique about it," she says at the launch in Muscat.

"You have story, music, drama, design, poetry and dance. Everything really comes ­together in opera and, as an art form, it is ­really so powerful and ­emotional. And that's what makes it ­universal. It elicits all these ­emotions that anyone can feel, whether you are in Oman or London."

A technological approach

The seeds of the exhibition were laid at the end of Bailey's ­previous V&A project, 2013's David Bowie Is – the first international ­retrospective of the late British singer's career.

A major aspect of that London exhibition was its canny use of sound, as a result of the V&A’s ­collaboration with Sennheiser. Through its use of the German audio technology company’s guide system, which sends signals to its headphones to change tracks at certain locations, fans were able to experience Bowie’s shape-shifting career through the music itself.

"It was really effective and it ­really added a new dimension to the show," Bailey says. "And this was something that I thought I wanted to work with when it came to other exhibitions."

She successfully pitched the idea of ­telling the story of the evolution of opera using the V&A's extensive ­catalogue of music and objects dedicated to the genre. Thus began an intensive two-year ­journey, during which Bailey worked in collaboration with London's Royal Opera House and attempted to piece together a narrative for the exhibition that was both detailed and entertaining.

It was the music, she explains, that led the way. "We treated the exhibition as an opera," Bailey says. "We kind of conceived the whole thing as a production, with the exhibits the stars."

Opera: 400 Years of Passion ­literally opens with a curtain raiser – our group had to lift a black cloth to enter the exhibition space and the use of black backgrounds sharpen our senses to focus on the ­exhibits in front of us.

Our first stop is ­Venice, but we sensed we were in Italy well before we saw the velvet gown used in a production of Les Fete ­Venitiennes (Venetian ­Festivities), thought to have premiered during the 1600s. This was down to the glacial Pur ti Miro by ­Claudio Monteverdi wafting through the ­headphones. The piece is from the Italian ­composer's final opera, 1642's L'Incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppaea), a ­controversial work that examines the morally ambiguous lives of 17th century Venetian men and women. Its success heralded ­opera's move from private to ­public entertainment.

Opera: the pop music of the past

And throughout the ages, the ­latest crazes often spread. ­London, which at the time was emerging as an economic ­powerhouse in Europe, caught the opera bug with the premiere of Handel's baroque opera Rinaldo in 1711 (a piece from the ­production, Venti, turbini, prestate, plays on the headphones as we make our way through the exhibition).

It explores the ­British public's mixed response to the latest ­cultural wave. "It wasn't always supported," says Bailey. "There were interesting criticisms, one of which came from The Spectator which, in 1711, said, 'What is this exotic European thing?'"

The exhibition has an evocative painting by Britain's William Hogarth showing a jubilant crowd attending the opera, while in the background Shakespeare ­productions are packed up and wheeled away.

Opera's popularity came with ­social capital and no one ­understood that better than ­Mozart. In the section dedicated to ­Vienna, Mozart's Le Nozze di ­Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), which ­premiered in 1786, is ­examined, with the production credited for its revolutionary use of ­characters from everyday life and its use of ­contemporary ­costumes.

Mozart's keen dress sense was part of his elevation into the ­highest social circles in ­Vienna. It was also immortalised in a 1764 Louis de ­Carmontelle hand-­coloured lithograph, on display in the exhibition, which shows the composer playing a ­violin, while dressed immaculately in a tailored burgundy overcoat with thick, green, rolled-up cuffs.

A local twist

After passing through ­Giuseppe Verdi's 1840s Milan, we arrive in Paris two decades later, when opera was the epitome of high society.

It is then that we arrive to at an exhibit more current and instantly familiar. The ­exhibition dedicates its final section to the host country and its musical heritage and the Omani ­exhibit is meant to look like a work in progress.

There are video screens showing news reports of the Royal Opera House ­Muscat being inaugurated by Sultan Qaboos bin Said in October 2011, in addition to the climactic scene of the ­opening night's opera, a production of Turandot directed by Franco ­Franco Zeffirelli.

A side room holds a small exhibit of an Omani-made oud, and the flowing red and emerald green dress that female members of the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra wear.

Walking out of the dark ­exhibition space and ­emerging once again into the light, ­Turnadot's ­signature aria plays through the speakers.

The Calaf's bellow of "Vincero" (I Will Win), rings out as an omen that Muscat and the region's classical scene will soon rise and take its place among ­opera's great locations.

Opera: 400 Years of Passion is showing at the House of Musical Arts, Royal Opera House Muscat, Oman, until March 14. For details go to


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