Inanna: An Opera of Ancient Sumer

A Grand Opera in Three Acts
Music & Libretto by John Craton

A musical journey across the millennia,Inanna takes us back to ancient Sumer. The time is 3000 B.C.E. in the city of Ur, long before Moses had brought the Ten Words, before Abraham wept in his cradle — a time of gods and goddesses, heroes and demons; a time when the people of Sumer worshipped Inanna, the goddess of love.

An opera constructed from ancient texts, Inanna utilizes poetry and narratives from the period and retells three episodes from the Inanna poems of ancient Sumer: the tale of the huluppu tree, the courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi, and Inanna’s descent to the Underworld. A large-scale work, Inanna is for full orchestra, vocalists, and dancers.


An opera based on the Inanna poems was first conceived in 2002 after a reading of various translations of the ancient texts. Several musical sketches were made, but work did not begin in earnest on the opera until February 2003. A librettist was contacted, and the composer began work on the orchestral sections that required no libretto. After these were completed there was as yet nothing forthcoming from the librettist, so the composer began adapting the original poems himself for various scenes. At first he wrote only those scenes requiring minimal dialogue, but as the work progressed he undertook to construct the entire libretto on his own rather than delay work on the project. Given the nature and beauty of the original texts, he did not find it as difficult a task as originally anticipated to render the Sumerian poems into a suitable libretto. The present draft was completed in 20 weeks, with the work concluding on 9 July 2003.

There were various difficulties to be overcome in making an opera out of these ancient texts. The tales related in the story date to circa 3000 B.C.E. and survive mostly in fragments. The poems represent a series of disconnected tales, some of which appear in themselves to be fragmentary. There was no Inanna “novel” from the period, so the opera has attempted to weave together in one narrative three principal episodes from the surviving texts: the tale of the huluppu tree, the tale of the courtship of Dumuzi and Inanna, and the epic known today as “The Descent of Inanna.”

The music for Act I is largely bucolic, reflecting the agrarian society out of which the stories evolved. Acts II and III, which comprise the crux of the “Descent” narrative, are considerably darker in tone than the first act and incorporate a large battery of percussion instruments.

Instrumentation on the whole is very conventional. Only one electric instrument is used in the score (the vibraphone), and only one unorthodox special effect (the wind effect in Act III, accomplished not with a wind machine but by having the brass players blow air through their instruments). The vocal parts are not inordinately challenging, though they do call for singers with moderately extended ranges. Inanna’s role utilizes frequent high B’s and C’s, ranging at times to C-sharp and to one brief high D. Most other roles are more tame.

Staging has been reduced to a minimum by allowing the music and the narrations by the Chorus of Mortals to present parts that otherwise would necessitate elaborate staging effects. Costuming is envisioned to be representative of the dress of ancient Sumer, and numerous examples may be found in surviving stelae and sculpture from the period.

The opera is dedicated to the memory of the late Dutch composer Ton de Leeuw (1926-1996), whose works have greatly influenced this composer. Although Inanna is not written in the advanced musical style of de Leeuw, it is hoped that the result is such that it presents a suitable memorial to his life and honors the significant contributions he made to the musical world of the twentieth century and beyond. It is further hoped that his works, like those of Enheduanna and other poets of ancient Sumer, stand the test of time and serve as inspiration to generations hence. May his memory be eternal.

Technical Information

2 flutes (1 doubling on alto flute), oboe, English horn, Bb clarinet, bassoon, Bb cornet, 2 horns in F, tuba Harp, harpsichord
Violins I & II (including solo violin), violas, violoncellos, double basses
Timpani, bass drum, snare drum, bongo, 2 woodblocks, cymbals, triangle, tam-tam, tubular bells, gong, vibraphone, marimba

Performance Time:
Total performance time is approximately 2 hours, 50 minutes.

Scorch scores may be viewed through the link below. Copies of the full score are available for review on request. Total length: 1,030 pages.

Cast (in order of appearance):

Sage (narrator for the prologue & epilogue) — Tenor
Chorus of Mortals (female chorus of 9 to 12 voices; serve as narrators and also as extras in various scenes) — Sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and contraltos
Inanna (goddess of love, sister of Utu, wife of Dumuzi) — Soprano
Dancers (non-singing roles):
   Serpent — male
   Anzu Bird — female
   Lilith — female
Utu (brother of Inanna) — Tenor
Geshtinanna (sister of Dumuzi, friend of Inanna) — Mezzo-Soprano
Ninshubur (Inanna’s counsellor) — Contralto
Dumuzi (a shepherd, and later husband of Inanna) — Baritone
The Anunna (demi-gods of the Underworld, servants of Ereshkigal — 6 male voices, tenors, baritones, and basses)
Ereshkigal (Queen of the Underworld; Inanna’s sister and nemesis) — Contralto
Kurgarra & Galatur (sexless beings created to rescue Inanna) — Tenors
Fly (a fly) — Countertenor



Before the curtain rises a Sage introduces the work to the audience and explains briefly what will transpire. He takes us back through the millennia to a time in the distant past when the people of Sumer worshiped the goddess Inanna.


Scene 1 (“The Huluppu Tree”)
Inanna’s garden. The opera begins with the Chorus of Mortals (a three-part female chorus) continuing the introduction by relating Inanna’s history and explaining how she rescued the huluppu tree from the flooding Euphrates River. Using libretto adapted from the ancient texts, the Chorus also gives the audience background information that sets the stage for the events to follow. At the conclusion of the chorus, Inanna appearsonstage to reveal herself in all her glory. She complains of having no royal throne or royal bed despite her majesty, but calms herself by the realization that she is full of youth and beauty and that time itself is in her hand — she will be patient. She then turns her attention to her huluppu tree, one of her most prized possessions, and sings a touching aria to the tree. When she retires for the evening, three sinister creatures come and take up residence in the tree. A short ballet features three dancers (non-singing roles) representing the Serpent, the Anzu Bird, and the Dark Lilith. The music contains a difficult part for solo violin. The following morning Inanna and Utu come into the garden to join Geshtinanna, who is singing an ancient Sumerian song and accompanying herself on a harp. Geshtinanna reveals a secret, that Inanna’s childhood friend Gugalanna is in love with her despite the fact that he is married to Inanna’s sister Ereshkigal, the Queen of the Underworld. They agree to keep the secret amongst themselves lest Ereshkigal’s wrath come to Gugalanna. Utu suggests that perhaps it is time for Inanna to marry, but she laughs at the idea, being content for now to enjoy her youth in her garden. Suddenly she realizes that her tree has been overtaken by the three creatures. Inanna becomes distraught, especially when the creatures refuse to leave the tree. Utu takes matters into his own hands and kills the Serpent, an act which instills enough fear in the Anzu Bird and in Lilith that they too flee. Utu then cuts down the tree and from it fashions a royal throne and a royal bed for Inanna. The scene ends with Inanna ascending the throne.

Scene 2 (“The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi”)
Inanna’s temple. Utu again tells Inanna that it is time for her to marry, and this time she agrees. However, she favors the farmer Gilgamesh to Utu’s choice of Dumuzi the shepherd as her prospective bridegroom. They debate the pros and cons of each. Inanna appeals to Geshtinanna who, despite being Dumuzi’s sister, Inanna feels will take her side in the debate. Instead, Geshtinanna and Ninshubur convince Inanna that Dumuzi would be the better choice. Inanna debates the question with the aria “Who will plow my vulva?” — a rather crassly worded poem by today’s standards, but one of the most famous of the Inanna texts. Dumuzi arrives to state that he will “plow her sacred field.” Inanna agrees to make Dumuzi her choice, and Ninshubur tells her she has chosen well. They then “seal the tablet” (affix their royal seals to a marriage tablet written on soft clay, the only formal ceremony involved in a Sumerian wedding) while members of the chorus prepare the bridal bed. The marriage concludes with Ninshubur’s aria, “Behold, my queen.” Following the ceremony, Inanna sings a tender song to her new husband (“Make your milk sweet”), and afterwards they both go behind a veil. The lights dim, and the couple are shown in silhouette tenderly touching, putting hand to hand, later embracing, and eventually lying down as the silhouette itself fades. During this pantomime the chorus sings what are perhaps the most touching lines in the Inanna poems: “He put his hand in her hand, he put his hand to her heart. Sweet is the sleep of hand-in-hand, sweeter still the sleep of heart-to-heart.”

ACT TWO (“Inanna’s Descent”)

Scene 1
The pathway to the Underworld, and later the Underworld. The Chorus again introduces the audience to the events of Act II, which are much darker than those of Act I. Inanna has learned that Gugalanna, Inanna’s childhood friend and husband of her wicked sister Ereshkigal, has died. She decides to go to the Underworld (Ereshkigal’s domain) to perform his funeral rites. She is reminded that none who go to the Underworld can ever return, but believing she has sufficient me (power), she fearlessly proceeds on her journey. A gateway in front of the curtain symbolizes the Seven Gates to the Underworld. Inanna demands to be allowed entrance. An Anunna (an Underworld demi-god) admits her, but on instruction from his Queen Ereshkigal, he begins to remove Inanna’s regal attire. Inanna protests, but she is reminded that “the ways of the Underworld are perfect; they may not be questioned.” She is stripped of her seven signs of royalty and is left wearing only a simple shift. Thus she enters (as the curtain rises) the Underworld. She stands before Ereshkigal’s dark throne shamed and humiliated while the Anunna look on. Ereshkigal is angry with Inanna because her husband Gugalanna had confessed that he secretly loved Inanna. For this infidelity Ereshkigal had had him killed. She blames Inanna for his death, but in truth Inanna only loved Gugalanna as a friend, never as a lover. Ereshkigal asks the Anunna to pass judgment on Inanna, and they find her guilty. Though Inanna pleads her innocence, Ereshkigal slaps her and she falls dead. The Anunna take Inanna’s corpse and hang it on the wall.

Intermezzo 1 (“Elegy for Inanna”)

Scene 2
Pantomime, and later the Underworld. The Chorus tells of the events that transpired above while Inanna was in the Underworld. Ninshubur waited three days for Inanna to return, and when she did not, Ninshubur began to mourn for her. She visited the gods of Sumer to implore their help in rescuing Inanna, but being jealous of Inanna’s power they refused assistance. Finally Ninshubur came to the temple of Enki and met with a caring heart. From the dirt beneath his fingernails, Enki created the kurgarra and the galatur, two sexless beings, and gave them the bread of life and the water of life to restore Inanna back to life. They are commanded to go to the Underworld where they will find Ereshkigal in the throes of personal agony, her heart reeling from the misery she has caused. When she moans they are to moan with her. When she observes their sympathy she will offer them a gift. They are to ask only for the corpse of Inanna and, having received it, are to resurrect her with the bread and water of life. The curtain rises for the latter half of the scene where the kurgarra and galatur find Ereshkigal writhing on her bed just as Enki had foretold. They perform their given tasks and restore Inanna to life. The three are about to leave when they are stopped by the Anunna who announce that no one who enters the Underworld may leave unless someone else takes their place. Inanna is vexed at this news as she does not wish the miseries of the Underworld on anyone. Nevertheless, the kurgarra and galatur suggest that surely somewhere within her vast domain she could find someone deserving such as fate. She decides this must be so, and thus she leaves, accompanied also by some of the Anunna who will bring back her surrogate to the Underworld.

ACT THREE (“Inanna’s Return”)

Intermezzo 2 (“Inanna Returns from the Underworld”)

Scene 1
Inanna’s temple. The scene opens with Dumuzi enjoying a bacchanal. He is playing the reed pipe while the Chorus of Mortals surround him drinking and feasting. The horns announce someone’s arrival, and when they see it is Inanna, Dumuzi and the women rejoice. In the midst of their rejoicing Inanna holds up her hands to silence them and relates the trials she has endured while away. She is angered that while she was suffering, Dumuzi was here enjoying himself, drinking, feasting, and making music. So enraged is she that she decides Dumuzi should be the one to take her place in the Underworld. She directs the Anunna to seize him, which they do. Dumuzi desperately pleads with Inanna to relent, but she turns her back on him. He then appeals to Utu, but he too forsakes him. Dumuzi is carried away.

Intermezzo 3 (“Dumuzi is Taken to the Underworld”)

Scene 2
Inanna’s temple. Inanna and Geshtinanna bemoan Dumuzi’s fate as Inanna now repents of her decision to have him be her surrogate in the Underworld. Geshtinanna announces that she wants to find her brother so that she can share his fate. Inanna tells her that she would happily take her to Dumuzi, but she does not know where to find him. A Fly then appears and agrees to tell them where to find Dumuzi, but he wants something in return. Inanna promises to grant the Fly access to all taverns and beer houses if he will tell them Dumuzi’s whereabouts. The Fly tells them to lift their eyes to the steppe of Arali, and there they will find their beloved. Inanna and Geshtinanna hurry off to locate Dumuzi.

Intermezzo 4 (“The Search for Dumuzi”)

Scene 3
The steppe. Dumuzi is bedraggled and not quite in his right mind when Inanna and Geshtinanna find him. He is at first fearful of them, believing they have come only to torment him. When they assure him they have come to free him, he relates to them a terrible dream he has had. Inanna comforts him by holding his head in her lap. She tells him it was no dream, but that she repents of having sent him to this place. She restores him to his right mind and tells him it is time to go home. He asks how that is possible since someone must now take his place. Geshtinanna announces her intention to do just that, but Dumuzi protests. Inanna reassures him that neither of them would be abandoned to the Underworld for all time, but that Geshtinanna would remain there for half the year and the other half Dumuzi would return. While Dumuzi is in the Underworld, Sumer will mourn for him, becoming dark and cold; but when he is free it will celebrate with sunshine and warmth. Thus Inanna establishes the seasons. The Chorus of Mortals begins her exaltation, followed by the full cast in chorus singing a hymn to Inanna. Inanna is exalted and ends as a shining star in the heavens.

(Proceeds directly from the end of Scene 3) As the stage slowly darkens, the Sage returns to conclude the opera, explaining that these were the gods our fathers worshipped in ancient days of darkness and ignorance. He professes, however, that Inanna and all these gods have dissolved to dust and are given to the winds. Those who would seek Inanna today seek in vain. The opera ends with the Chorus of Mortals ethereally chanting the name “Inanna” offstage.

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