Kokoschka began writing his play during his convalescence (from wounds received on the Ukrainian front in 1915) and it premiered in 1921, one year before Rilke's Sonnets to Orpheus appeared. In 1923 he let it be known that he was looking for a composer to write incidental music. Kokoschka's expressionist, psychological treatment of the Orpheus myth, marked by his passion for Alma Mahler, appealed to Krenek so he approached Kokoschka.
They quickly decided that the work should become an opera and Krenek received carte blanche to adapt the German play, condensing it by a third in the process, and setting it to an atonal score. At one point Krenek sought help from Erdmann, who gave up. In this new form it premiered as Krenek's opus 21 in Kassel at the Staatstheater on 27 November, 1926.