#Opera Before Instagram: Portraits, 1890–1955 features a selection of photographs from the collection assembled by Charles Jahant (1909–1994), a well-known critic, radio panelist, teacher, lecturer, and a member of the Advisory Council of the Metropolitan Opera Archives. Drawing on his comprehensive knowledge of opera, he also contributed articles to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and other important publications. The Charles Jahant Collection in the Library of Congress Music Division contains nearly 2,000 photographs of opera singers from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, many of which are inscribed to him. Jahant began donating his collection to the Library in 1980, and it remains the largest iconographical collection held by the Music Division. The photographs on exhibit represent a cross section of important singers who performed in the United States. Some artists are presented in formal attire, which would have been used for general publicity and concert appearances, and others are costumed as characters from their operatic repertoire.
Before Instagram and other apps made sharing photos as easy as pressing a button, pictures of popular opera singers, like those in this exhibit, were sold in gift shops across the operatic world. The most ardent fans would also write letters to their favorite singers to request photographs. Today, when using one’s cellphone camera is commonplace, it may be difficult to appreciate the importance of acquiring such a photograph. Apart from the program booklet or ticket stub, it would have been the only remembrance that a dedicated fan could take home to commemorate a particularly wonderful night at the opera. For a collector like Jahant, however, photographs of this kind took on a different significance. His collection represents a historical view of the art of operatic singing through photographs of the greatest singers of his time and before.
#Opera Before Instagram explores what Charles Jahant’s Instagram account might have looked like had he lived in the internet age, with photographs of his favorite opera singers, along with captions giving his assessment of each singer’s talent and history. The labels presented in this exhibition are drawn from Jahant’s own writings. They capture his personal, and sometimes quirky, descriptions of opera singers just as he might have presented them on social media. #opera