Opera was once seen as the exclusive reserve of aristocracy, a polite social occasion or an event to attend to affirm your cultural capital as a member of a social elite. Iveta Vaivode’s images tell a different story of intense participation by a more heterogeneous audience in a drama unfolding out of the frame. She watches the watchers, much as painters like Edgar Degas or Walter Sickert did at the music hall a hundred years ago. The long exposures she employs render the subject in a high contrast impressionistic way, like Édouard Manet, but instead of Baudelaire’s Flaneurs, Vaivode sees a more stratified contemporary audience. From box to balcony to stalls the make-up of the spectators clearly differs, but the difference from seat to seat is equally enthralling as many people sit virtually stock-still for the entire 45 minutes of the performance & exposure, whilst others move around to the point of visual extinction. Some sit forward in their seats wringing their hands as the narrative grips them, whilst others coolly recline, arms folded.
In one image Vaivode shoots looking down from the balcony on the red velvet curve that separates the orchestra pit from the stalls. The marked contrast either side of the line, one of light activity against dark observation, puts us in mind of Plato’s cave or Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, as those in the dark sit transfixed by the energy of others – passion by proxy. And yet the work is less social critique than affective visual feast as the audience is drawn into the play.