1988 – The Return of Odysseus – ABOUT

The Return of Odysseus

Commissioned by W11 Opera in 1988, published by Universal Edition

Synopsis: The opera is based upon the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus and his struggle to return home after the Trojan wars as told in Homer’s epic tale The Odyssey.

Composer David Bedford
Librettist David Bedford
Music Director Nicholas Kraemer
Soloists Odysseus 1 & 2, Penelope, Eurycleia, Telemachus, Polyphemos, Circe / Minstrel
Groups Crew, Cylcops, Sirens, Serpent/ Bird/ Hermes, Loyal Servants, Disloyal Servants, Suitors
Orchestra 2 Violins, Viola, Cello, Flute, Oboe, Clarinet, Percussion, Piano Duet, Wine Glasses

Notes on Production: The adventures of Odysseus on his return from Troy in a faithful, swiftly moving and action-packed version of the Homeric story. The piece would appeal strongly to boys. The storyline is clear and easy to follow.

Musically lyrical, with many excellent choral moments, a few accessible parts for soloists, good variation in pace and mood. In the original W11 Opera production, some effects were provided by a team of sixteen wine-glass players adding a highly atmospheric sound.

A number of changes of scene are required which can be indicated by lights/props. The cast groupings are flexible, giving some opportunities for doubling and great scope for humorous characterisation among “Suitors” and “Crew”. Age range 9-18 with opportunities for broken male voices. Very suitable for a school production.

Running time 1 hour 10 minutes.


The Opera opens in Odysseus’ palace in Ithaca, But Odysseus is not there; he has not been seen since he left, 20 years ago, to fight the Trojan War. In the palace are his wife, Penelope, his former nurse, Eurycleia, and his son, Telemachus. Penelope is beset by disloyal Servants and importunate and unruly Suitors who are trying to persuade her to marry. They argue that, after all these years, Odysseus must be dead and the kingdom needs a king to keep it in order.

Penelope, who is convinced that Odysseus is still alive and will return, first resists the Suitor’s demands. However, she eventually agrees to marry one of them but only when she has finished a tapestry she is weaving. But she arranges with Eurycleia to buy time by secretly undoing every night the weaving she has done the previous day.

No sooner have the Suitors renewed their demands than a beggar arrives asking for rest and refreshment. When Eurycleia, unobserved, recognises the beggar as Odysseus, he explains to her and Penelope that he has returned in disguise so that he can see for himself just what has going on in Ithaca. But before he tells them more of his plans, they encourage him to relate something of what happened to him and his Crew on their way home.

So he tells of his encounter with the giant Polyphemos, and the scene changes to reveal a different, younger, Odysseus. He is near the cave of Polyphemos who is surrounded by the one-eyed Cyclops. Polyphemos is suspicious and hostile from the start and soon all are in danger for their lives. Only the resourcefulness of Odysseus enables them to get away.

Back in the palace Odysseus outlines his plans to find out who is still loyal to him. But before doing anything he agrees to recount another of his adventures.

Again the scene changes, this time to the mysterious island of Circe, the Witch. She too is hostile and soon has changed the Crew into pigs, only a magic herb provided by the god Hermes gives Odysseus protection from the same fate. And, having established his ascendancy over Circe, he compels her to turn his crew bank into men. And Circe, after vainly trying to persuade Odysseus to stay with her, not only warns him of the dangers he faces from the Sirens – whose beguiling voices lure sailors to shipwreck – but also advises him how to make a safe passage.

Before he puts that advice to the test there is a short palace interlude, with Penelope lamenting Odysseus’ absence.

Odysseus and his Crew then approach the Sirens and hear their music but, by following Circe’s advice, they manage to sail safely past.

The final scene takes place in the palace where Penelope is under increased pressure to marry one of the Suitors. As the tapestry is now finished she reluctantly agrees to marry the one who can match Odysseus’ skill in shooting an arrow through 12 axe-heads in line, Various Suitors try but fail even to string the bow. Odysseus, still in disguise, asks to be allowed to try, Penelope agrees and of course he succeeds, He casts off his disguise and, helped by his loyal supporters, kills all the disloyal Servants and Suitors. Peace is pronounced and all rejoice at the happy outcome.