Back to News

Four decades of operatic storytelling explored in exhibition

An exhibition exploring 40 years of Opera North’s operatic storytelling will open in the Education Room at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds, on Tuesday 28 March.

Our Academic in Residence, Professor Edward Venn, has dug deep into our archives and costume and prop stores to curate the show, which looks at the ways in which Opera North has engaged with issues of race, representation and authenticity, coinciding with preparations for our concert staging of The Pearl Fishers.

Written at the height of the ‘Orientalist’ trend in the mid-19th century, Bizet’s opera is set in an exoticised pre-colonial Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka), with very little attention given to the authenticity of its setting or sound.

“From the earliest operas to the present day, the art form has always offered representations of far-off times, cultures, and people”, explains Professor Venn. “In the 18th and 19th centuries opera houses sought to capture the attention of their growing audiences through theatrical spectacle, exoticism, and musical novelties reflecting distant lands and cultures.

“Opera companies, directors and performers have become increasingly aware that traditional stagings of such works have the potential to communicate negative and stereotyped messages about race and culture. Contemporary productions have engaged more deeply with questions of how audiences listen or who has the right to tell certain stories, and how they can facilitate authentic creative voices.

“Over the course of the last four decades, Opera North has offered both traditional and innovative stagings of works that bring these issues to the fore”.

Professor Venn has selected props, costumes, programmes, photographs and even video trailers to chart Opera North’s evolving approaches to operatic storytelling. Madama Butterfly, a particularly controversial work due to the negative stereotypes within Puccini’s plot and music, is examined through a display of objects from various productions, including a Japanese ornaments, a horsehair whip, and a beautiful and painstakingly detailed kimono.

“To stage Madama Butterfly is to engage directly with issues of representing race authentically, to confront cultural sensitivities, and to consider the implications of telling troubling stories to contemporary audiences”, says Professor Venn.

Bizet’s final work, Carmen – another of the most popular operas in the repertoire – is also explored, with early, traditional Opera North productions giving way to more committed examinations of the character of Carmen herself. Contemporary thinking around feminism and race is taken into account, and the story is sometimes relocated to encourage contemporary resonances.

The exhibition concludes with promotional films for our recent production of Carmen, as well as 2022’s Rigoletto, directed by Femi Elufowoju jr, and Orpheus, the groundbreaking meeting of Monteverdi and Indian classical music directed by Anna Himali Howard, with new music and arrangements by the Company’s Artist in Residence, Jasdeep Singh Degun.

Opera North: Race, Representation and Authenticity, 1979–2023 runs in the Education Room at the Stanley and Audrey Burton Gallery, University of Leeds, from Tuesday 28 March – Friday 19 May 2023. The gallery opens from Tuesday – Saturday, 10am–5pm, and admission is free.

Beyond The Pearl Fishers

The exhibition is part of a series of events taking place alongside The Pearl Fishers, exploring some of the contentious issues involved in presenting this work today.

Carnatic Pearls, in the Howard Assembly Room on 11 May, is a concert of song and improvisation featuring Yarlinie Thanabalasingam and Shri Vijay Venkat from the Orpheus ensemble, joined by Shri Somasundara Desikar on the mridangam (two-sided drum). Presented in partnership with South Asian Arts-uk, it’s an opportunity to experience the authentic music of The Pearl Fishers’ setting.

With introductions from specialists at the University of Leeds, the Howard Assembly Room’s postcolonial film season offers a contemporary counterbalance to the opera, and a space for critical thinking and discussion on the subjects it raises for us today. A mesmerising exploration of the legacy of empire, Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (6 April) restages Herman Melville’s Billy Budd in a remote Foreign Legion outpost. Dr Mani Sharpe, Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Leeds, will introduce the film and its themes. On 21 April Ciro Guerra’s dreamlike masterpiece Embrace of the Serpent follows two Western scientists, 40 years apart, who venture deep into the Amazon on a quest for a legendary healing plant, and appeal to the same shaman for guidance. On 18 May, Black Girl, the searing 1966 debut from Senegalese director Ousmane Sembène, is shown with a pre-screening talk by Dr Priyanka Singh, Curriculum Re-Defined Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Leeds.


Opera North: Race, Representation and Authenticity, 1979–2023 is part of the 2022–23 Sadler Series Telling Operatic Stories: Race, ethics, and authenticity, funded by the Leeds Arts and Humanities Research Institute.

Professor Edward Venn’s residency at Opera North is part of part of the Company’s DARE partnership with the University of Leeds.


Search our site