Johan Botha (The Emperor); Emily Magee (The Empress); Michaela Schuster (Nurse); Johan Reuter (Barak, the Dyer); Elena Pankratova (Dyer's Wife); Jeremy White (One-Armed Man); Hubert Francis (The Hunchback); Ashley Holland (Messenger of Keikobad)
Once, the Emperor of the South Eastern Islands was hunting with his falcon and pursued a white gazelle. He clipped it with an arrow and just as he was about to kill it, the animal resumed its real form -- as the daughter of Keikobad, the Spirit King. The Emperor married her, but she has lost her magic power to assume animal shapes. Neither spirit nor human, the Empress is unable to bear children, and her infertility is symbolized by something more obvious -- no matter how the light strikes her, she cannot cast a shadow.
As ACT ONE of the opera begins we see the Nurse, who accompanied the Empress from the spirit world, guarding the royal couple’s room. Keikobad sends a Falcon to explain that if the Empress fails to cast a shadow within three days, the Emperor will be turned to stone and the Empress will be taken back by her father.
The Empress's Nurse, who accompanied her from the spirit world, has a disdain for all things human. But humans do have shadows, and bear children. So the Nurse agrees to accompany her into the world of humanity, where they can buy a shadow from a human woman.
The Empress and the Nurse visit the miserable Wife of Barak the Dyer. Barak longs for children, but his Wife is loath to bear them for him, and vows to stop sharing his bed. The Nurse hopes to use the Wife’s unhappiness to persuade her to give up her shadow, and her fertility, in exchange for a life of pleasure and a handsome young lover.
The Wife is unsure of the Nurse’s intentions, but eventually agrees to the deal. Demonstrating her witchlike powers, the Nurse claps her hands and Barak's bed is magically split in two -- and five fish in a frying pan suddenly begin to wail, as the voices of the couple's unborn children. When Barak returns that night he retires to his lonely bed, as a watchman sings an ironic tune in praise of a fertile marriage.
As ACT TWO begins, we find the Empress and Nurse as servants in Barak’s home. When the dyer leaves with his brothers, the Nurse continues to tempt the Wife with a handsome young lover, though the Wife is too frightened to fully respond.
We then see the Emperor visiting his falconer’s cottage, having been told that his wife and the Nurse would be staying there for three days. He hides in the shadows and soon the two women return to the house, slipping secretly into the cottage. The Emperor detects the smell of mankind and becomes jealous, suspecting the Emporess of infidelity. He decides to kill her, but can’t summon the courage and flees.
After an interlude we return to Barak’s hut, where the Nurse drugs his wine, putting him to sleep. The Nurse then brings back the handsome youth to tempt the Wife once more. She's frightened, and awakens Barak, stating that his home is no longer hers, and leaves angrily with the Nurse.
The Empress remains in the house asleep, and feeling increasingly guilty about wronging Barak. In a dream, she sees the Emperor in a deep cavern with a bronze door, while invisible spirits bellow the Falcon’s warning that the Emperor will soon turn to stone.
In the act's final scene Barak’s wife lies to him, saying she has been unfaithful and that she has found a way to be rid of him: She has sold her shadow and can no longer have children. As Barak becomes increasingly angry, the Nurse produces a sword and gives it to the dyer. When he raises the weapon his Wife admits that she lied. The bargain for her shadow has not been completed. Now contrite, she is prepared to die. But before Barak can kill her, the ground opens and swallows the house, taking Barak and his Wife with it. The Empress is carried to safety by the Nurse, who observes that higher powers are now in play.
In ACT THREE, we see Barak and his wife separated in subterranean cells, unaware of the other’s presence. They both realize their mistakes: Barak regrets his anger, while the Wife laments her wrongful confession and inability to love Barak for who he is. Set free by servants of the underworld, the couple is told to find each other.
Meanwhile, the Nurse and the Empress travel to Keikobad’s temple, where the Empress recognizes its entrance as the bronze door in her dream. The Nurse tries to keep the Empress from entering, but is dismissed.
The spiteful Nurse, hearing the searching voices of Barak and his Wife, diverts the couple from finding each other. At that, a messenger of Keikobad throws her back into the boat and condemns her to wander in the world of humans, which she despises.
Inside the Temple, the Guardian of the Threshold tempts the Empress with a drink of the water of life, after which the shadow of the dyer’s Wife will be hers. She refuses the drink and sees the Emperor, who has been turned to stone, with only his eyes seeming alive, imploring her to save him. The offer is made again, and again she refuses, instead saying she'll die at the Emperor's side.
At that, the spirit world relents. The Empress has displayed human compassion, and the Spirit King forgives her. The Emperor is returned to life, and the Empress suddenly casts her own shadow on the floor. Barak and his Wife are reunited. As the two couples sing together, the voices of their unborn children sing with them, and the opera ends.