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.
October 1958. Ahmed, a charismatic, morally pliable Moroccan in his late 20s, listens to the radio a he sips espresso and reads Rumi. The sun rises in the Courtyard of the Cypress, a mediocre pensione in a marginal part of Tunisia. Out of his line of sight, two men wearing western jackets converge. Two more individuals in flowing robes, supporting (or coercing-it isn't clear) a woman wearing a jeleba, deliver her into the arms of one of the men. They disperse. The Call to Prayer sounds. Ahmed drops to his knees to pray. Afterwards, he muses upon the various roles he plays--man, lover, and husband.
ACT ONE-SCENE ONE
Teddy, a British expat in his late 40s, owner of the Cypress enters, carrying the suitcases of a newly arrived guest, Lizzy, a lovely American journalist in her early 20s. Ahmed, the Cypress' major-domo, receives the bags and carries them to an elevated bedroom. Presently, alone, Lizzy begins a letter to her sister Claire, back in the States. Three women dressed in jelebas filter into the courtyard. They sing Lizzy's thoughts as she writes. Ahmed arrives, carrying a jug of water. Chemistry. After he leaves, Asilah, an intellectually inquisitive Arab woman in her 20s working as the hotel's maid, enters, startling Lizzy. She and Lizzy establish a friendship based on her desire to develop her English. Lizzy presents Asilah with a book of poetry.
ACT ONE-SCENE TWO
A few days later, Lizzy sips a drink and writes in her notebook in the Courtyard and accidentally witnesses the abduction and possible murder of an unidentified woman. One of the attackers pushes her to the ground. She returns to her room with blood-either her own, or Habiba's-on her hands. Asilah arrives to turn down the bed. She identifies the woman as her sister, Habiba. She tries to calm Lizzy by reading poetry with her, but to no avail. Lizzy vows to tell Habiba's story in print.
ACT ONE-SCENE THREE
The next morning, Ahmed arrives with Lizzy's breakfast on a tray. Impulsively, the two kiss.
ACT ONE-SCENE FOUR
Late afternoon the next day. The women are again in the Courtyard, and sing Lizzy's thoughts as she writes a letter to her sister revealing her feelings for Ahmed. Teddy arrives, announcing that he is to escort Lizzy to dinner. He muses on a woman's role in Morocco, gives Lizzy back the book that she gave Asilah, telling her that her husband Ahmed forbids her to have it.
ACT ONE-SCENE FIVE
Later, in the Courtyard, Lizzy-angry, humiliated, and embarrassed-impulsively gets drunk with Teddy, who introduces her to kief. Asilah enters, unseen, and guides a very drunk, very stoned Lizzy to her room. "Why would you help me?" asks Lizzy. "Because we are sisters," replies Asilah. "This is crazy," Lizzy says, "but I feel lucky here." "Not luck," replies Asilah, "suerte" (fate). Asilah sings about a woman who was trafficked and raped. After Lizzy has fallen asleep, she reveals that the story is autobiographical. Ahmed returns to the Courtyard to clean up. Asilah overhears him as he reveals that he is in love with Lizzy, but that he knows there's no place for her in Morocco. All he can hope is that he might persuade Lizzy to take Asilah out of the country with her. 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. They try to reconcile. Asilah leaves.
ACT ONE-SCENE SIX
Teddy returns. Teddy explains that he has a plan to make Asilah "disappear." She will be taken safely to Tarifa, where she can have the baby. After Teddy leaves, a distraught Ahmed realizes that he never said goodbye to Asilah. Lizzy appears at the doorway of her room. She has packed her bags and plans to leave. He begs her to take Asilah with her. She rebuffs him. Teddy returns, fanning the flames. A scream is heard. Ahmed and Lizzy run off to find out what has happened. The next morning, the women reappear in the Courtyard. They express Lizzy's thoughts as she describes, in a final letter to Claire, Asilah's murder.
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 induce 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, they exit together.
Lizzy (Natalie Cummings) writes a letter home in the Butler Opera Center production.
"A Woman in Morocco spins a complicated tale over two fast-paced acts. Hagen's multilayered score shifts nimbly and deftly, never foresaking tonality though unafraid to employ some modernist expressionism or minimalist simplicity when needed. In numerous vocal ensemble moments — intriguingly presented at times with some singers offstage accompanying onstage singers — Hagen offered shimmering, lyrically rich sounds."
—Jeanne Claire van Ryzin, Austin360.com
"Hagen traffics all but exclusively in acoustic tonality, so when I heard that electronic elements were involved in this production I was very interested to hear how he would approach it. Consisting of pre-recorded and digitally manipulated sounds, including those natural (rain and thunder) and human (ululations, vocal glissandi, and a jazz trio presented as a shortwave radio broadcast), each electronic addition was subtle and organic and added an extra dimension to the proceedings."
—Andrew Sigler, NewMusicBox.com
Lizzy (Natalie Cummings) is given kief by Ahmed (Soonchan Kwon) in the Butler Opera Center production.
The first excerpt is of a pop song first heard on a shortwave radio at the beginning of the opera that returns in different contexts throughout the score. The second and third are electro-acoustic soundscapes woven into the acoustic orchestra. (There are ten in all.) The final two excerpts are stand-alone arias.
Center City Opera Theater
Allan Hicks, stage director
College Staged Performances
October / November 2013
Butler Opera Center
University of Texas, Austin, TX
Robert DeSimone, stage director
Kelly Kuo, conductor
Daron Hagen, stage director
Kimcheri Lloyd, conductor
112 minutes, with one intermission
Lizzy Holmes / Woman #4 (Lyric Soprano)
Asilah / Woman #1 (Soprano)
Habiba / Woman #2 (Soprano)
Claire Holmes / Woman #3 (Mezzo-soprano)
Woman #5 (Mezzo-soprano)
Teddy Forsythe (Baritone)
Harry Hopkins (Bass-baritone)
(A compact disc containing pre-recorded sound cues is required for live performance. Double casting of the female roles is encouraged, but not required.)