When she checks in to the Cypress, a run-down pensione in Morocco, the life of Lizzy Holmes, a young, naïve American travel writer, unravels. She becomes entangled in the world of its denizens, all of whose lives orbit Ahmed, a charismatic, handsome, morally pliable Tunisian. Teddy, a dissolute English expat, owner of the Cypress, keeps Ahmed in his employ to satisfy all desires. Not knowing that Ahmed is married to Asilah, an Arabic woman who was trafficked, sold, branded in shame, Lizzy befriends her and helps her to learn English. The ensuing love triangle fuels Lizzy’s self-destructive submission to aphasia and drugs. A plan devised for Asilah to leave the country ends in betrayal and death.
Alerted to Asilah’s tragic death by Lizzy’s increasingly distressing letters, and drawn to Morocco by her concern for her, Claire, Lizzy’s older sister, arrives in Tangiers in the company of Harry Hopkins, an American businessman she met in Paris. She does not know that Teddy and Harry traffic together in young Arab girls. Ahmed discovers that Harry is responsible for the rape of his wife. He draws a knife and attempts to avenge Asilah’s death. Teddy, who has signed ownership of the Cypress over to Ahmed as an expression of his love for him, takes the knife, and plunges it into Harry’s chest. Teddy is arrested, but confident of his release. Lizzy has vanished. Claire, determined to find Lizzy, remains at the Cypress, with Ahmed.
Ahmed, a charismatic, handsome, morally pliable Tunisian wearing a flowing gown, greets the October 1956 dawn in the Courtyard of the pensione Cypress in Morocco. In one hand, he holds an open volume of Rumi’s poetry; in the other, a woman’s scarf. As he reads, disembodied female voices sing the words on the page. They are, as they shall be throughout the opera, mixed with stylized, pre-recorded wordless ululations redolent of the traditional Adhan. A crowd swallows him up as the sun bursts into view.
ACT ONE - SCENE ONE
Lizzy Holmes, a young, naive American travel writer, emerges from the crowd. She meets Teddy Forsythe, the dissolute, middle-aged English expat owner of the Cypress. He and Ahmed show her to her room. She and Ahmed flirt. A few hours later, Asilah, an Arabic woman in her early 20s, and, unbeknownst to Lizzy, Ahmed’s wife, arrives to turn down the bed. She and Lizzy establish a friendship based on her desire to learn to speak English.
ACT ONE - SCENE TWO
A few days later, in the Courtyard, after buying a colorful scarf from a vendor, Lizzy witnesses the murder of a young mother named Habiba who has been caught stealing. Later that evening, Asilah and Lizzy read poetry together, and Lizzy determines to discard her travel writing and instead “Tell Habiba’s story, change her fate, make people see.”
ACT ONE - SCENE THREE
The next morning, Ahmed brings Lizzy her breakfast. Impulsively, she kisses him. He slips a bracelet on her wrist.
ACT ONE - SCENE FOUR
That evening, Teddy reveals to Lizzy that he knows that Lizzy is teaching Asilah to read. Lizzy is astonished when told that Asilah is married to Ahmed.
ACT ONE - SCENE FIVE
Late the same evening, Lizzy dines in the Courtyard with Teddy. Angry, self-destructive, she allows Teddy to introduce her to kief. An hour later, Lizzy returns to her room. She emerges from the shower to find Asilah turning down the bed. She confronts her. Asilah guides Lizzy, who is very stoned and drunk, to bed, and sings to her about a woman who was trafficked, and raped. After Asilah sees that Lizzy is asleep, she reveals that the story is autobiographical. She takes the bracelet back. Early the next morning, in the Courtyard, Asilah confronts Ahmed. She reminds him that she is pregnant. He tells her that he will stand by her, but that he will never love the child. She must have the baby in secret, somewhere else.
ACT ONE - SCENE SIX
That evening, in the Courtyard, Teddy declares his love for Ahmed, and promises to spirit Asilah away. Teddy explains that Asilah will “disappear,” but be taken safely to Tarifa. Meanwhile, in her room, during their English lesson, Asilah reveals to Lizzy that she knew of Ahmed’s infidelity. A few hours later, in the Courtyard, Ahmed is wracked with guilt: he did not say goodbye to his wife; he fears the worst. Lizzy overhears Ahmed and dresses him down. Teddy enters and explains that Asilah’s going to be “taken care of.” Asilah’s screams draw Ahmed and Lizzy off. Teddy sits down and lights a cigarette. Early the next day, Lizzy, despairing, stoned, still covered in blood, is revealed at her typewriter, writing to her sister. She describes the murder, and pleads for help.
ACT TWO- SCENE ONE
Lizzy’s older sister Claire, a snappy, intelligent journalist working for the Chicago Tribune, arrives at the Cypress in the company of American businessman Harry Hopkins, an unscrupulous commodities speculator she met in Paris. She is looking for Lizzy. She confronts Teddy, who tells her to return the next day, as evening prayers have begun.
ACT TWO - SCENE TWO
Lizzy is revealed, asleep in her room. Ahmed emerges from the bathroom, kisses her, and slips the bracelet back on her arm. She resists at first, but succumbs when he offers her kief. Meanwhile, in the Courtyard, Claire and Harry arrive and are greeted by Teddy. Sending Teddy to the bar, Claire explains to Teddy how responsible she feels for Lizzy. Lizzy, meanwhile, vows to Ahmed that she’ll “get the truth out.” “I can no longer protect you,” Ahmed replies. In the Courtyard, Claire leaves. Harry approaches Teddy. It is clear that they do in fact have history. Harry wants Teddy to find his “little Arab.” Teddy agrees, for a price.
ACT TWO - SCENE THREE
Later that evening, Teddy and Ahmed force Lizzy to dress in a Moroccan jeleba. They walk her from her room, through the Courtyard, and into the night.
ACT TWO - SCENE FOUR
Still later, Harry is revealed in the Courtyard, at the bar, drinking. He rationalizes his lifestyle. Meanwhile, in Lizzy’s room, Teddy and Ahmed are in bed together. Ahmed sleeps as Teddy sings about how he ended up in Tangiers. Harry hurls his shot glass at the bar. It shatters. The sound wakes up Ahmed. Harry leaves. As an expression of his love for him, Teddy signs over ownership to Ahmed of the Cypress. Meanwhile, Claire is revealed in the Courtyard, re-reading Lizzy’s letters. As she reads, Ahmed reminds Teddy that they have a date to meet Harry.
ACT TWO - SCENE FIVE
Harry, sent by Claire to look for Lizzy, arrives at the Cypress. He is shown Lizzy’s room, all traces of her recent occupancy removed, by Ahmed. Ahmed tells Harry that he acts as his agent in trafficking. Harry reveals that he was Asilah’s rapist, and has returned for more. “My wife,” reveals Ahmed, “carries your child.” Ahmed puts a knife to Harry’s throat. Teddy enters and, out of love for Ahmed, grabs the knife and plunges it into Harry’s chest, killing him.
A few days later, Ahmed is revealed reading the volume of Rumi in the Courtyard. Claire sits, smoking a cigarette, a few tables away. Lizzy’s scarf sits before him. Claire vows not to leave Tangiers without her sister, and asks him for his help in finding her. Ahmed places Lizzy’s scarf on Claire’s head. As the sun rises and the Call to Prayer is heard, they exit together.
Lizzy (Natalie Cummings) writes a letter home in the Butler Opera Center production.
Lizzy (Natalie Cummings) is given kief by Ahmed (Soonchan Kwon) in the Butler Opera Center production.
The first excerpt plays on a shortwave radio onstage during Act One, scene 5. An operatic scene unfolds over it. The second is one of the ten electro-acoustic "sound collages" that are woven into the instrumental fabric of the score.
Center City Opera Theater
Allan Hicks, stage director
College Staged Premiere
October / November 2013
Butler Opera Center
University of Texas, Austin, TX
Robert DeSimone, stage director
Kentucky Opera Contemporary Opera Series
Daron Hagen, stage director
130 minutes, with one intermission
Lizzy Holmes (Lyric Soprano)
Claire Holmes (Mezzo-soprano)
Teddy Forsythe (Baritone)
Harry Hopkins (Bass-baritone)
(A pre-recorded disc containing digitally-manipulated wordless ululations is triggered by the keyboard player in the pit.) When offstage, the female characters may be double-cast.