Sadler's Wells Opera performing Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, 1961

Sadler's Wells Opera performing Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, 1961

Sadler's Wells Opera performing Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld
Sadler's Wells Theatre, London
1961
Colour photograph

One way to criticise politics or society is to send up a well known story and fill it full of references that are equally valid for that story and for contemporary life. In 1858, this was what the composer Offenbach did in Paris, taking the Orpheus legend as the springboard for a series of attacks against the complacency of the middle class in the Second Empire in France. As many of his criticisms can be applied to almost any period or regime, the opera has remained extremely popular. In the Sadler's Wells Opera production, one of the most hilarious scenes was the descent into Hell – in this case via the London Underground in the rush hour. Director Wendy Toye also managed to fit in a sticking lift and a bubble bath and Mercury, messenger of the gods, had jet-propelled sandals. The costumes were reminiscent of 19th century burlesques on classical themes, updated for 1960.