The legend of Orpheus has enjoyed obvious favour as a subject for opera. Above all it demonstrates the power of music, and with a pastoral setting had a double appeal to composers and poets. Orpheus was the son of the Muse Calliope, either by a Thracian king or by Apollo, who gave him the power to move rocks and trees and charm wild animals by the power of his lute. After the death of his wife Eurydice, he attempted to bring her back from the Underworld, placating the boatman of the dead, Charon, and the three-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hades, Cerberus, and persuading the King of the Underworld, Pluto (Dis), and his wife Proserpina (Persephone), to allow Eurydice to return to the world above, following her husband, but on condition that he did not look round, as she followed him. He looked round and lost Eurydice, thereafter wandering the fields of Thrace singing of his lost love, until torn apart by jealous women or followers of Dionysus. The Muses were said to have buried his remains, except for his head, which floated, with his lyre, to Lesbos, establishing lyric poetry on that island. The name of Orpheus was also associated with a mystery religion in which the Underworld became a form of purgatory.

Operas based on Orpheus range from the work of Peri, Caccini and Monteverdi to Marc-Antoine Charpentier and Lully, Luigi Rossi, who wrote his second opera on the subject for the French court in 1647, Gluck and Haydn, with, in the present century, Roger-Ducasse, Milhaud, Alfredo Casella, Malipiero and Harrison Birtwistle. The opera on the subject projected by Claude Debussy was never tackled. Literary references to Orpheus are, of course, manifold, from Homer to Rilke and beyond.