Orpheus geleitet Eurydike aus der Unterwelt: Ölgemälde von Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1861)

Orpheus: the singer of the millenium

He was the most famous singer in the Greek myths, his story inspired artists in every era and genre – and Orpheus was even involved in the birth of opera.

A verse epic like Roman poet Ovid’s »Metamorphoses«, written in the year 8 AD, and a film like Helmut Dietl’s »Vom Suchen und Finden der Liebe« of 2005 are worlds apart. But they both tell one and the same story: the mythological singer Orpheus touches the hearts of the gods with his singing in order to rescue his wife Eurydice from the underworld. The gods grant him permission to descend to the realm of Hades and take Eurydice back with him, on the condition that he doesn’t look back at her as they walk back to Earth. But Orpheus ignores the gods’ command and loses Eurydice forever.

»They took the upward path, through the still silence, steep and dark, shadowy with dense fog, drawing near to the threshold of the upper world. Afraid she was no longer there, and eager to see her, the lover turned his eyes. In an instant she dropped back, and he, unhappy man, stretching out his arms to hold her and be held, clutched at nothing but the receding air.«

Ovid: The Metamorphoses (Orpheus and Eurydice)


Ovid’s poem and Dietl’s film could be seen as the cornerstones of a reception history stretching over more than 2,000 years, during which the original Greek saga has been treated in nearly every artistic genre, yielding variations on the theme too numerous to count. Film director Dietl, for example, transports the story to the present day and swaps the gender roles: in his version, Orpheus walks behind Eurydice, and after a disparaging comment about her backside, she is the one who turns around, causing Orpheus to vanish back into the underworld. His own fault…

The Fascination of Orpheus

But what is it about the story that has fascinated composers, poets and painters since time immemorial? For a start, there is the love story itself: the fact that Eurydice dies twice over makes it especially tragic, placing Orpheus and Eurydice alongside other famous pairs of lovers in Western cultural history such as Romeo and Juliet and Tristan and Isolde.

A second source of the story’s special appeal is the fact that Orpheus stands as a symbol for music like no other mythical character, so that his story is predestined to be set to music. Thus it comes as no surprise that opera composers in particular cannot get enough of him.

»Orpheus is the ultimate operatic hero – the incarnation of music, and a symbol of love beyond death.«

Silke Leopold, musicologist

The origin of opera

The very birth of opera as a genre is unthinkable without Orpheus. Opera came into being towards the end of the 16th century as part of a growing enthusiasm for classical antiquity which ushered in the Renaissance. This »rebirth« also encompassed the revival of cultural achievements such as Greek and Roman theatre. And antiquity also supplied the material: Orpheus was the ideal character. Both Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini used a libretto by Ottavio Rinuccini for their »Euridice« operas in the year 1600: these are now regarded as the first works of music theatre of the modern era. Seven years later, Claudio Monteverdi followed up with his »L’Orfeo«, a »favola in musica« (musical fable) whose organisation into recitatives and arias made it the first »real« opera in the history of music.

The Orpheus legend and its reception history

After Monteverdi and his two colleagues set the ball rolling with their operas, many more settings of the story were to follow. One German music dictionary alone lists more than 60 Orpheus operas, among them the two versions by Christoph Willibald Gluck in different languages that date from 1762 and 1774 respectively, Jacques Offenbach’s sociocritical parody of 1858, »Orpheus in the Underworld«, and, as one of the most recent examples, Philip Glass’s 1993 adaption of the film of the same name by Jean Cocteau.

Christoph Willibald Gluck: Che farò senza Euridice

In addition to opera, Orpheus also served as inspiration for many other works of music from a wide variety of genres. Thus there is not only a symphonic poem by Franz Liszt and a ballet by Stravinsky: German singer-songwriter Reinhard Mey gave his first album the title »Ich wollte wie Orpheus singen« (I wish I could sing like Orpheus), while the Canadian indie rock band Arcade Fire devoted one song each to Orpheus and Eurydice on their 2013 album »Reflektor«. But Orpheus was not only a musical figure par excellence, he also served as inspiration in other artistic genres – be it in poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, Gottfried Benn and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, in plays from Tennessee Williams to Elfriede Jelinek, or in numerous paintings and sculptures.

We also come across the character of Orpheus in many films – albeit often in another guise. In addition to »Vom Suchen und Finden der Liebe« and the above-mentioned Cocteau film, Alfred Hitchcock was another director who made use of the story: in his »Vertigo« (1958), police inspector Scottie Ferguson falls victim to an intrigue where he sees what he believes to be the same woman dying twice over. French director Marcel Camus in turn transported Orpheus and Eurydice in his »Orfeu Negro« (1959) to the carnival in Rio de Janeiro; here, Orpheus plays the guitar instead of the lyre. The greatest singer of all time can literally play every instrument!


Text: Simon Chlosta, last updated: 21.2.2022

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