Shostakovich’s First Symphony, oil painting, Pavel Filonov, 1935, Russia. © State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow / Bridgeman Images

A spectacular and vivid journey through 400 years of operatic and European history, Opera: Passion, Power and Politics opened on 30 September.

Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, 1934, is explored in detail throughout the run of this V&A exhibition. Both avant-garde and propaganda material will be on display alongside a painting inspired by Shostakovich’s First Symphony by Pavel Filonov, rarely seen outside Russia.

From the Victoria and Albert Museum in collaboration with the Royal Opera House, this is the only exhibition to ever explore opera on a grand scale. Led by an exquisite sound experience, the exhibition immerses you in key moments in the history of opera from its roots in Renaissance Italy to today’s premieres. Working with opera specialists and theatre, lighting and sound designers, the V&A presents a unique, theatrical experience that will bring visitors to the heart of opera in the Museum’s stunning new Sainsbury Gallery.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics focuses on seven operatic premieres in seven cities. It reveals how opera brings together multiple art forms to create a multi-sensory work of art, and shows how social, political, artistic and economic factors interact with great moments in the history of opera to tell a story of Europe over hundreds of years.More than 300 extraordinary objects encompassing the V&A’s collections and important international loans are interspersed with creative stage sets and compelling footage of seminal opera performances.

World-leading performances are played via headphones, dynamically changing as you explore the cities and objects, to create an evocative and fully immersive sound experience. In a 360-degree installation presenting all of Italy’s opera houses is the backdrop to a powerful new recording of the Royal Opera Chorus singing ‘Va pensiero’ from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco is experienced. One of the leading operatic stars of her generation, soprano Danielle de Niese and world renowned mezzo-soprano, Alice Coote, have recorded ‘pur-ti-miro’, the love duet from L’Incoronazione di Poppeaespecially for the exhibition. A life-size moving set shows how opera was staged in 18th century London, and against a soundtrack of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk a recreation of Shostakovich’s study provides the backdrop for rare footage of him working on a composition. At its heart, the breadth of contemporary opera is explored in a stunning, multi-screen audio-visual presentation.

Highlights of the objects on display include Salvador Dali’s costume design for Peter Brook’s 1949 production of SalomeMusic in thTuileries Gardens by Edouard Manet, a masterpiece of modernist painting contextualising Wagner’s modern approach to music in 1860s Paris; the original score of Verdi’s Nabucco from the Archivio Storico Ricordi in Milan; and one of two surviving scores from the first public opera (L’incoronazione di Poppea)are on display. Original material from the 1934 St Petersburg premiere of Shostakovich’s avant-garde Lady Macbeth of Mtsenskhave been reunited and displayed outside Russia for the first time: these include the composer’s original autograph score, along with stage directions, libretto, set models and costume designs.

Opera: Passion, Power and Politics is the first exhibition staged in the V&A’s purpose-built Sainsbury Gallery. Part of the V&A Exhibition Road Quarter, designed by AL_A, it provides one of the largest exhibition spaces in Europe and a flexible gallery for the Museum’s internationally renowned exhibitions. The Sainsbury Gallery has been transformed to give the impression you are backstage at the opera by specialist designers, led by V&A exhibition curatorKate Bailey, with The Royal Opera’s Music Director Antonio Pappano as music director, internationally renowned opera director Robert Carsen as artistic director, and curatorial consultancy from the Royal Opera House.

The exhibition will convey opera to a wider audience. Throughout the run, live events from high-profile opera companies and performers will take place across the V&A.To coincide, the BBC is embarking upon a season of opera across BBC Two, BBC Four, Radio 3and BBC Arts Digital. This will include a landmark series for BBC Two Lucy Worsley’s Nights at the Opera exploring many of the same operas and cities as the exhibition, presented by Lucy Worsley and featuring Sir Antonio Pappano, and a new Jonas Kaufmann documentary for BBC Four. Other activity includes performance broadcasts for BBC Four, broadcasts of all seven operas from the exhibition on BBCRadio 3, and an episode of In Tune broadcast live from the V&A. On 19th October BBCArts Digital will work with the V&A, leading UK opera companies and cultural institutions on #OperaPassion day, an unprecedented day of live streaming exploring the power of opera. A partnership with King’s College London, the Royal Opera House and the V&A have created a free MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) introducing the core tenets of opera.

The seven cities and premieres explored are:

Venic– MonteverdiL’incoronazione di Poppea,1642. The narrative of the exhibition begins in Venice, a Renaissance centre of entertainment, gambling and disguise. The city’s narrow alleys are evoked, and on display are a sumptuous painting of composer Barbara Strozzi depicted as a courtesan and the original surviving manuscriptscoreofMonteverdi’s L’incoronazionediPoppea – an opera exploring scandal and ambition. Premiered in Venice’s Carnival season 1642-3, it represents opera’s transition from private court entertainment to the public realm.

London Handels Rinaldo, 1711. In 1711 Handel’s Rinaldo premiered – one of the first Italian language operas performed in London, as the city emerged as a global trade centre. A dramatic, kinetic set re-creates the premiere’s elaborate staging, which caused a sensation at the time. The fashion for castrat0 singers is shown through paintings and rare surviving costumes. Tensions at the time between the incoming European-inspired opera and traditional theatreare highlighted in a Hogarth engraving depicting crowds attending the opera as books by Shakespeare and other great British writers are wheeled away.

Vienna – MozartsLe nozze di Figaro, 1786. Mozart’s comic opera Le nozze di Figaro premiered in 1786in Vienna, a centre of the Enlightenment.Itscharactersweredrawn from everyday life and the singers wore contemporary costume on stage.Fashionable dressas worn by Mozart’s Count and CountessAlmavivaare on display.Theroleofthecomposerisexamined through the figure of Mozart, and a piano he played on a visit to Prague has travelled for the first time for the exhibition.

Milan Verdis Nabucco, 1842. The growing importance of the chorus is explored through Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco which premiered in Milan in 1842. The opera’s ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ (‘Va pensiero’) became an unofficial national anthem for Italy after the events of the Risorgimento led to the country’s unification.

Paris Wagners Tannhäuser, 1861. In the 1860s opera enjoyed a high status in Paris, a city undergoing huge transformations. The 1861 Paris premiere of Richard Wagner’s Tannhäuser, which he had revised specially for performances in the city, polarised audiences, but Wagner’s vision for the art form proved inspirational for artists and writers.

Dresde– StraussSalome, 1905. Richard Strauss’s explosive modernist opera Salome premiered in 1905 in Dresden, a progressive city in the grip of artistic expressionism, as depicted in Erich Heckel’s painting of the suburbs. The opera’s reception and the shifting perceptions of women that the story reflected will be examined. The exhibition also includes many depictions of Salome, from Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to a Versace costume design.

Politbureau ZKVKP (B) (Central Committee of the All Russian Communist Party (Bolshevik), poster, Gustav Klutsis, 1935, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Museum no. E.1267-1989. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

St.Petersburg – ShostakovichLady Macbeth of Mtsensk, 1934The final opera explored in detail is Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. Initially embraced by audiences at its St Petersburg premiere in 1934 as an expression ofnewSoviet opera, it was banned under political censorship in 1936. Shostakovich did not write another opera. Both avant-garde and propaganda material will be on display alongside a painting inspired by Shostakovich’s First Symphony by Pavel Filonov, rarely seen outside Russia.

Footage from 20th- and 21st-century premieres creates a finale showing how opera has moved from Europe across the world and continues to take on new forms. The operas include Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, Stockhausen’s Mittwoch aus Lichtand George Benjamin’sWritten on Skin.