An introduction to The Mask of Orpheus

Here’s everything you need to know about ENO’s production of Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus.

It’s a complex retelling of the Orpheus myth by Harrison Birtwistle

The ambitious piece explores the contradictions in various versions of the Orpheus myth.

The production uses different areas of the stage to symbolise the different depictions of the famous Greek story.

The three main characters, Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus are each played by a singer, a dancer and a puppet. The three versions of the character represent their human, heroic and mythical form.

The score is so complex in places; two conductors are required to manage the vast orchestra.

Birtwistle is a British composer

Born in the Lancashire town of Accrington in 1934, Harrison Birtwistle was musically gifted from a young age. Through a clarinet scholarship, he entered the Royal Manchester College of Music, where his contemporaries included the composers Alexander Goehr and Peter Maxwell Davies.

He is one of Europe’s leading figures in contemporary music.

He is no stranger to works based on Greek Mythology

Although The Mask of Orpheus was the composer’s first operatic treatment of Greek mythology, he has used it to inspire many of his works.

Just under ten years into his composing career, Birtwistle scored his first major success with Tragoedia (1965), an Ancient Greek word meaning ‘Goat Dance’. He first confronted the Orpheus myth in 1970 with Nenia: The Death of Orpheus, and returned to it twice more after Mask with The Second Mrs. Kong (1994) and The Corridor in 2009.

His 2008 opera The Minotaur depicted the well-known Ancient Greek tale, although his version presented the Minotaur as sympathetic character with real human emotions.

The opera was fully staged in London for the first time since its premiere

In 1986, Birtwistle’s The Mask of Orpheus premiered at the London Coliseum as an ENO production.

Daniel Kramer’s production was be staged just a few months after the composer’s 85th birthday.

The Mask of Orpheus (Composer Harrison Birtwistle & Jean Rigby as Eurydice) (c) Zoe Dominic