Act I, scene 1

Freud's Consulting Rooms

October

Anna, Freud's 12-year-old daughter, reads her father's papers and looks forward to growing up. She is sent off when Herr Bauer arrives with Dora. After sending the father off, Freud explains his methods in an aria ("The mind is a curious country") and prepares to analyze her. But Dora's terror suddenly flips the doctor's mind back to an incident in his own childhood when he urinated on the floor upon catching a glimpse of his elderly father making love to his much younger mother. Dora recounts a Dream-Aria ("In my dream, the house was on fire") that Freud interprets in sexually-charged language that embarrasses the girl.

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Act I, scene 2

The Bauers' apartments at an hotel by a lake

Summer; a few months earlier

Herr Bauer tells his wife that he is going with Dora to visit their friends the Ks. Frau Bauer affects disinterest, being obsessed only with keeping the rooms sterile and free from the germs of syphilis that have already infected her; this becomes the subject of her Dusting Waltz.

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Act I, scene 3

The Ks' apartments

A short time later

Frau K welcomes the Bauers, and she and her husband launch into a Quartet ("Will we have a chance to be alone?") in which the characters express their various desires, using the language of social small-talk. This is immediately followed by the Bawdy Waltz, a grotesque trio in which the three adults make plans to share time with Dora and with each other. The men go off and Dora asks Frau K some questions about sexual anatomy and her father's illness, which she fears she may have inherited herself. Frau K begins to seduce Dora in a lyrical Aria/Duet ("We are by the Neusiedlersee") until they are interrupted by the arrival of her father.

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Act I, scene 4

By the lake

Later the same day

Dora is playing by the lake with the Ks' children Heinrich and Zinnie, who repeat a spooky song ("There is a witch") taught them by their governess Marie. While the children whisper about Marie's sudden departure, a flashback in another part of the stage suggests the reason for it. Herr K enters and sends off the children so that he can see Dora alone, presenting her with a jewel case and propositioning her. When she angrily rejects him, he joins the other men in an ensemble that answers Freud's own question "What do women want?" with the women's own cry of "Like birds in a cage of languor and rage… beating clipped wings, wanting to get out!"

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Act II, scene 1

At night

A few days later

Out of real time, Dora and Anna dream of their respective fathers. Dora is woken by the presence of Herr K next to her bed. When she rejects him, he treats her as a child.

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Act II, scene 2

The Bauers' apartments

The next morning

Dora tells her father of Herr K's advances, begging him to break with the family in an Aria ("I am your daughter") in which she says that all her love is for him alone. When he refuses, she suffers a full-blown hysterical outburst in which she imagines Herr K and Herr Bauer bargaining over her. They first discuss her in an obscene waltz-duet ("My dear friend"), followed by a more civilized club-room discussion along the same lines. This leads to a nightmare Quintet in which the adults, costumed as weird birds, surround Dora and tell her that she is making everything up ("No one can believe you").

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Act II, scene 3

Freud's Consulting Rooms

Towards the end of the year

Freud is playing with Anna, who teases him with half-understood facts about sex picked up from reading his papers. Then Dora arrives, announcing that this will be her final visit. Freud argues against her rejection in an Aria ("Dora, there is no 'no' in the subconscious"), and as a sop to him she recounts a second Dream-Aria ("In my dream of the ancient city"). Although this dream ends in a visit to her father's grave, the mood is radiant and serene, and Dora cuts Freud off before he can destroy it.

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Act II, scene 4

The Ks' apartments

Some months later

In a Duet ("Our bodies that once brought us joy"), Herr Bauer and Frau K lament the toll that has been wrought on them by syphilis. Dora has finally summoned the courage to confront the adults for their abuse, but she enters in the aftermath of an unexpected tragedy for which all the adults are equally to blame. Freud begins an epilogue, echoing the words with which he had begun—but now his certainties are tinged with doubt, the adults have had their lives destroyed, and only the younger generation see any possibility of hope.

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