After a brief orchestral prelude, the chorus, as narrator, reminds us that it is important to keep our best stories alive. They then set the scene with accounts of the glory and wealth enjoyed by the great Emperor of China long ago.
The Emperor hears of the wondrous singing of a nightingale who lives in the forest behind his palace. He demands that she be found and brought to him to hear. Her song moves him to tears and he offers her an honored place at court.
One day a gift arrives from the Emperor of Japan—a mechanical nightingale covered with jewels. The Emperor and his court are enchanted by this new bird and the true nightingale quietly flies away. The Emperor is furious at her departure, and banishes her. After many playing, the mechanical bird eventually breaks down.
Five years pass and the Emperor becomes gravely ill. When Death arrives to take his life, the true nightingale returns and sings. Death is so charmed by her song that he restores the Emperor’s life. The grateful Emperor asks her to stay always at court. The nightingale replies that she must be free but promises to visit and sing as often as she can for the Emperor and for all his people, “the highborn and the low.”