The V&A's collections of engravings, prints, caricatures and sheet music document opera's dramatic 400 year history. From the evocative to the humorous, these images capture opera's artistic, social, economic and political influence, as well as celebrating its key stars and performances.
Opera evolved from grand-scale spectacles held in royal palaces during the 17th century. Our collections contain several engravings featuring the Palace of Versailles, where Louis XIV regularly held lavish performances, with the intention of impressing foreign dignitaries and reinforcing his image as absolute ruler. Versailles had no theatre, so temporary stages were set up around the palace and in the gardens. Louis and his courtiers often took part and Louis' nickname, The Sun King, came from his performance as Apollo, the Greek god of the sun, in the Ballet de la Nuit in 1653.
A later engraving from 1745, Ballet at Versailles by Charles Nicolas Cochin, shows how the appetite for visual spectacle grew into the 18th century. The engraving depicts the sumptuous staging of comedy-ballet The Princess of Navarre, produced for the celebrations of the royal marriage between the King's son, the Dauphin, and Maria Theresa of Spain. An early example of the now-familiar theatrical convention of the 'proscenium arch' is visible. This grand surround helps create an illusion of perspective, while masking the ropes, pulleys and counterweights that work various bits of scenery.
In the 18th century, opera's popularity spread to England. One of the first Italian-language operas to be written for the London stage was George Frideric Handel's Rinaldo. The decorative front cover of a copy of his music score, from 1711, the year it was first performed, describes Handel as Kapellmeister ('master of the chapel') to German Prince George, the Elector of Hanover, who become King George I of Great Britain and Ireland in 1714.
Much later, but no less elaborately designed, is the 19th-century sheet music for Handel's Acis and Galatea. The Greek mythological origin of the story is evoked on the front cover, which features a couple in classical dress in a Mediterranean countryside. The first performance of Acis and Galetea took place in the gardens at Cannons, the great house built by Handel's patron, the Duke of Chandos. It quickly became one of Handel's most popular operas.
Another important factor in the success of Italian opera in England was the rise of the castrato. Castratos were male singers who were castrated to prevent their voices deepening during puberty, resulting in a unique combination of vocal clarity, purity and power. As depicted in the 1726 engraving, The Castrati, castratos developed broad chests (which gave them great breath control), developed disproportionate limbs, and were inclined to gain weight.
Unsurprisingly, the fashion for castratos died out some time ago, but in the early 18th century they dominated opera and were adored by female fans, who often fainted or became hysterical with admiration during performances. The engraved sheet music, Ladies Lamentation for the Loss of Senesino, encapsulates the hysteria aroused when the great castrato, Senesino, left London in 1730. Castratos earned more in London than anywhere else in Europe. In fact, Senesino built a fine house in Italy and inscribed over the door "twas the folly of the English had laid the foundation of it".
In 1724, London's vogue for opera, and the controversy surrounding it, became the subject of celebrated painter and satirist, William Hogarth. The Bad Taste of the Town comments on the way in which Londoners flocked to the fashionable opera, instead of legitimate drama. The caricature features opposing crowds queuing for opposite theatres, overlooked by opera impresario, John James Heidegger, while in the foreground, a woman wheels a barrow marked 'waste paper' – containing the works of Shakespeare, Congreve, Dryden and Otway.
Another contentious 18th century caricature, High Committee, features Robert O'Reilly and William Taylor, the rival managers of the Pantheon and King's Theatre, as they prepare to fight. William Taylor is supported by the Prince of Wales and the playwright, Sheridan. Robert O'Reilly, manager of the Pantheon, is backed by the Lord Chamberlain and King George III. The concept is based on a dispute that began after the King's Theatre, Haymarket, burnt down in 1789. It was rebuilt by 1791, but in the meantime Robert O'Reilly transformed the Pantheon into a theatre, obtained the necessary license to perform and got permission from the King to call itself the King's Theatre. This meant that the 'other' King's Theatre could open for music and dancing, but not for dramatic performances. Matters were resolved when the Pantheon itself burnt down in 1792. Rumours circulated that the rival management was to blame, but nothing was ever proved.
Opera audiences in the 18th century were often lively. There were frequent reports of riots, such as the one depicted in the print, The Riot During the Opera 'Artaxerxes'. Traditionally, punters could enter theatres for half-price toward the end of the evening, to see the short after-pieces that followed the main play. In 1763, the management of the Covent Garden Theatre announced that only full price tickets would be available. The response was an organised riot that destroyed the interior of the theatre and forced the theatre management to reinstate the half-price concession.
In the 19th century, female opera singers, or sopranos, began to command widespread attention. In the early 1800s, cartoonist James Gillray made several caricatures of the opera singer Elizabeth Billington. Billington was often in the public eye, not just for her delightful singing and vast salary, but for the scurrilous Memoirs of Mrs Billington, published in 1792. Gillray clearly enjoyed sending up Billington's substantial frame and homely face. The Bulstrode Siren, with its ironic implication of a mythological enchantress, depicts her sitting with one of her admirers, the Duke of Portland, who supposedly paid her large sums for private performances at Bulstrode Park, his house in Buckinghamshire.
As the notion of the diva grew, London audiences flocked to see exotic, foreign, female stars. Several lithographs attest to the awe and excitement surrounding these leading women, who thrilled audiences and drew huge salaries. Madame Catalani, featured in the print Angelica Catalani in the title role of Portogallo's opera Semiramide, was highly praised by The Morning Post for her 1806 London debut: "She far exceeded any description that is within the scope of language to justly characterise".
A more brooding set of prints conveys prima donna, Giuditta Pasta, as 'Medea' from Mayr's opera, Medea in Corinto. The dramatic images reflect Medea's intense storyline: a priestess who falls in love and bears children, but murders them when her man abandons her. Pasta had extraordinary range and variety of tone, but was best known for her expression of emotion.
The ephemeral nature of live operatic performance has made it difficult to document its existence. And yet surviving engravings, caricatures and prints do provide a window into its history – encapsulating all the passion, power and politics that its performers, patrons and audiences have invested over the centuries.