The opera was first performed in a German translation by Ludwig Prinz von Hessen at the Schlosstheater Schwetzingen at the Schwetzingen Festival on 20 May 1961, conducted by Heinrich Bender. The first performance using the original English text was in Glyndebourne, also in 1961. The Juilliard Opera Theater produced the opera in New York City in 1965, with the composer conducting. Henze revised the opera in 1987, and this revised version received its first performance on 28 October 1988 at the La Fenice Theatre, Venice, with Markus Stenz conducting.
According to Ann Saddlemyer in her book "Becoming George", the poet is partially based on W. B. Yeats, and his wife "George" (Georgie Hyde-Lees) was the inspiration for both the secretary and the woman with visions. David Anderson has noted that the poet also portrays Auden as well. Robert Henderson has summarised the thesis of the opera as follows:
"Elegy for Young Lovers....is a bitter indictment of the Romantic notion of the artist as hero, feeding remorselessly on those around him both in the name of art and to satisfy his own monstrous and inhumanely egotistical appetites."
The opera is set in an inn called Der Schwarze Adler in the Austrian Alps in 1910. The plot is centred on a poet, Gregor Mittenhofer, who manipulates the people in the inn to provide inspiration to his work, his faithful secretary, his doctor, his young "muse" Elisabeth and a hysterical woman who lost her husband to the mountains decades before and has visions. When a young man arrives who attracts Elisabeth, Mittenhofer lets her go but doesn't act to prevent the young lovers' death in a snowstorm in the mountains, using the tragedy as the inspiration for a final "Elegie" of pure music, sung without words.
Richard Lloyd-Morgan (Mittenhofer), Regina Schudel (Hilda Mack), Aurelia Hajek (Carolina), Silvia Weiss (Elisabeth), Bruno Fath (Toni Reischmann), Orchestra of the Berliner Kammeroper, Brynmor Llewelyn Jones, conductor, 1989 Deutsche Schallplatten DS (live in Berlin)
Lisa Saffer (Hilda Mack), Rosemary Hardy (Elizabeth Zimmer), Mary King (Carolina von Kirchstetten), Christopher Gillet (Toni Reischmann), Roderick Kennedy (Dr. Wilhelm Reischmann), David Wilson-Johnson (Gregor Mittenhofer), Adrian Brine (Josef Mauer), Schönberg ensemble, Live recording Concertgebouw Amsterdam, 27 September 2000, conductor: Oliver Knussen. 2CD is part of the Schönberg Ensemble Edition box (a century of music in perspective).