The Cornish Foundation, established with money left by the late art expert, collector, and notable eccentric Francis Cornish, must choose a worthy undertaking upon which to expend a portion of its considerable funds. It is decided that the Foundation will fund the doctoral work of one Hulda Schnakenburg, a grumpy, difficult, and extraordinarily talented music student. Her task is to complete the score of an unfinished opera by the Romantic composer E. T. A. Hoffmann. Additionally, and against all common sense, the Foundation will undertake to stage the opera, entitled Arthur of Britain, or The Magnanimous Cuckold. As the production takes shape, Hoffmann's restless spirit hovers rather too close for comfort, and his dictum, "The lyre of Orpheus opens the door of the underworld," proves prophetic for many a participant as their lives begin to resemble the opera's plot.