Opera as the World<br>The quest for a total work of art

ExhibitionsOpera as the World
The quest for a total work of art

From 22nd June 2019 to 27th of January 2020

Locations : Centre Pompidou-Metz , Galerie 3
Category : Exhibitions
Public : All ages

“It’s not a question of re-composing an opera, with its [inherent] hierarchies, but rather of making an instrument for the production of freedom.”
Pascal Dusapin, about de To Be Sung, Arles-Caen, Actes Sud - Théâtre de Caen, 1994, p.20.

Opera as the World witnesses the encounter between the visual arts and opera in the 20th and 21st centuries. Beyond the straightforward presentation of opera sets created by artists, the exhibition aims to shed new light on the resonance, and tensions, between opera and the Wagnerian legacy of the Gesamtkunstwerk (Total work of art concept) (“total artform”), exploring how the visual arts and lyric theatre have enriched one another and, at times, become sources of mutual, radical influence and inspiration. In this two-way relationship, opera is a fertile ground for experiment and the fomenting of new aesthetic and political sensibilities.

In the context of the contemporary art scene, an exhibition devoted to opera is meaningful in more ways than one. We have moved beyond the myth of “the last opera”. In 1967, Pierre Boulez’s call to “blow opera houses up” resounded like an irrevocable verdict and death sentence, yet we know now that throughout the second half of the 20th century, opera produced a remarkable, important body of new work. The genre’s much criticized “spectacularization” had widespread impact on other artistic spheres. Opera-as-spectacle prompts further exploration of this theatrical sensibility and its innervating influence on contemporary art, after years of more conceptual forms.

Through set designs and costumes, scenographic elements, large-scale installations and new works, Opera as the World combines sound and vision to showcase opera’s role as both a workshop for shared artistic aims and aspirations, and the embodiment of creative freedom. The exhibition charts alternative territory in our exploration of interdisciplinarity in art, from the experimental sets of early avant-garde productions such as Arnold Schoenberg’s Die glückliche Hand (“The Hand of Fate”, 1910-13), to scores that have become latterday repertory classics, such as Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise, and more experimental, uber-iconic works such as Philip Glass and Bob Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach (1976).

Focussing on selected works representing the fertile links between visual artists and the stage, the exhibition is organised into thematic sections, from “painting in motion” to political, sometimes utopian productions, radical forms and new settings for opera, and the magic, sound and fury of the great myths. Classics such as The Magic Flute and Norma are also featured, highlighting how bold, innovative approaches can transform the established repertoire into a space for transgression and transformation, while ensuring a sense of continuity.

The exhibition also addresses its own ability, if not to recreate, then at least to evoke the sensory power and enchantment of opera. A number of past productions are “revived” alongside specially-commissioned work from contemporary artists, demonstrating the passion the medium of opera continues to inspire, and offering visitors an immersive encounter with its unique magic.

Extending the reflection on the chosen affinities between the show and visual arts - supported by previous projects among which Musicircus or Oskar Schlemmer. The Dancing Artist, Opera as the World exhibition questions the theatricality that innervates the disciplines of modern and contemporary art, with a resonance all the stronger that the exhibition is part of the Opéra national de Paris 350th anniversary, platform of innovative artistic intentions - those of Bill Viola, Romeo Castellucci or Clément Cogitore, to name but a few.


Curator: Stéphane Ghislain Roussel
Research and Exhibition Officer Anne Horvath


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The exhibition Opera as the World coincides with celebrations to mark the 350th anniversary of the Opéra national de Paris.

Polish designer Małgorzata Szczęśniak (b. 1954) is a scenographer, costume specialist, and long-time collaborator with opera director Krzysztof Warlikowski. Her work flies in the face of conformity and theatrical tradition. Characterised by its architectonic approach and the spectral evocation of its own raw materials, her work wavers between twinkling sobriety and a kind of contemporary Baroque that tests the expressive power of the stage through an exploration of the symbolism of place, and the transformation of reality. Drawing on diverse sources of inspiration, from the visual arts to cinema, Szczęśniak eschews any attempt at “illustration”, enshrining the scenography as a pivotal dramatic element.

At the curator’s invitation, Małgorzata Szczęśniak has designed the exhibition’s scenography in close collaboration with the artistic team at the Centre Pompidou-Metz. The result is a labyrinth that unfolds from one end of the gallery to the other – a metaphorical realisation of the medium’s sensory and dramaturgical journey, conceived as an opera in its own right, organised into acts, scenes and “sensations”.

As a quest that offers answers and invites new discoveries in equal measure, the visitor itinerary is carefully orchestrated to incorporate the element of surprise, quiet interludes and expansive, contemplative spaces. Symbolically, the labyrinthine form evokes and resonates with the narratives of mythological characters such as Ariane or Orpheus – foundational, tutelary figures in the history of opera, gripped by boundless passions and yearning.

The exhibition’s architecture deliberately evokes a homogenous, globalising approach in order to celebrate the rich, protean mix of nations, stories and dreams that establishes opera as a mirror of the wider world.

Couverture Catalogue Opéra Monde

The exhibition catalogue Opera as the World. The quest for a total work of art, edited by curator Stéphane Ghislain Roussel, presents an ambitious survey of the relationship between opera and the visual arts, from Wagner to the present.
The lavishly illustrated reference volume explores this multifaceted topic through a selection of over fifty pivotal works. Essays and previously unpublished interviews with some thirty specialists in the field, backed by extensive scholarly apparatus, examine the aesthetic and political questions posed by opera and the ideal of “total art”.

Exhibition Catalogue
Edited by Stéphane Ghislain Roussel
Published by Centre Pompidou-Metz, co-edition with the RMN
Hardback, 320 pp., format 22 x 28 cm
Language: french
Publication date: June 19th, 2019
ISBN : 978-2-7118-7439-2

With the support of Moselle department:

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Founding sponsor:

Logo Wendel


Patrons of the exhibition:

Logo La Compagnie de PhalsbourgLogo Caisse d'Epargne Grand Est Europe


With the support of:

Logo Groupe Galeries Lafayette


In a media partneship with:

Logo France Musique

Logo Beaux Arts

Logo OUI SNCFLogo Républicain LorrainLogo TéléramaLogo ARTE