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New Exhibit: A Night at the Opera

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First edition vocal score of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” (published in 1787). Music Division, Library of Congress.

Every six months the Performing Arts Reading Room looks forward to the installation of a new exhibit in the reading room’s foyer. Over the years staff and readers have learned about the riches of the Music Division’s collections by exploring exhibits on topics ranging from the Ballets Russes, to Music and Animation, to the Federal Theater Project, to I Love Lucy, and beyond. Earlier this month we bid a fond adieu to our Danny Kaye and Sylvia Fine: Two Kids from Brooklyn exhibit (now on its way to Los Angeles for public exhibit in the Walt Disney Concert Hall), but this week a new exhibit is unveiled – A Night at the Opera! Exhibit co-curators James Wintle and Ray White collaborated to refine the focus of the exhibit and carefully select 56 collection items for display. To learn more about what to expect, I asked James Wintle a couple of questions about the new exhibit:


The new exhibit is called “A Night at the Opera.” What aspects of opera does the exhibit explore?

The exhibit presents opera as a performance art, not just notes on paper. We wanted to provide visitors with a sense of what it’s like to actually go to the opera. The color scheme is based on the deep red that is traditionally used for an opera curtain. When you enter the exhibit, the first thing you see is a video screen with excerpts from television programs and movies from the 30s, 40s, and 50s to give the contemporary visitor a sense of how an average person at that time might have been exposed to operatic music in the first place. Maybe seeing an opera singer on the Ed Sullivan Show or watching a Bugs Bunny cartoon, we wanted to show some of the ways that people might get to know opera before going to a live performance. After the video, visitors can look at collection materials in a wide variety of formats. We wanted to display items from “both sides of the curtain,” like composer sketches and manuscripts, published scores that would be used by the performers in rehearsal, stage designs and pictures of performers in costume to show the look of an actual performance, and the librettos and programs that audience members might read and take home as a souvenir. We tried to show the entire experience from genesis to performance.

How did you decide what operas to include?

2013 is the bicentennial of both Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, and that was the original reason for planning an opera exhibit. Ray White, my co-curator, and I kicked around a few ideas before we realized that because Verdi and Wagner are two of the most often performed opera composers, as well as being incredibly influential, we could look at Italian and German opera immediately before and after those two, and essentially cover the “standard repertory” of a modern opera company, if we also added a few examples of French, Russian and American opera to the mix. This led us to the idea of looking at opera as performance and allowed us to narrow our focus to a limited number of operas; the ones that are actually performed on a regular basis. That solved our biggest problem, which was limiting the Library’s massive collection of opera scores, librettos, and so on, to a manageable number of items that would fit in the exhibit space.

What’s your favorite item featured in the exhibit?

My favorite item would have to be a page from the manuscript score of Peter Ibbetson. It’s probably the least known opera in the exhibit, but in its time, in the early 1930s, it was very popular. The composer is Deems Taylor, who besides being a fine composer, was well-known as a classical music critic and general tastemaker in the New York music scene. He wrote two operas for the Metropolitan in New York and this was the second of the two. It was performed 22 times over four seasons at the Met and was even broadcast on the radio. It’s really a lovely piece and being able to display the score along with a picture of the tenor Edward Johnson in costume as Peter Ibbetson, and hopefully spark people’s curiosity about Deems Taylor, is a real pleasure.


The Library of Congress’ A Night at the Opera exhibit opens today in the Performing Arts Reading Room of the Madison Building and runs from August 15, 2013 to January 25, 2014.

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