words and music by Susan Stoderl
Place: New York City, 1858
Act I, Scene 1: Outside the New York Ledger office on lower Broadway, Sara Payson Willis Eldridge Farrington Parton (a/k/a/ Fanny Fern) explains the circumstances of her having become a world-renowned, highly-paid female columnist. Two women of American Females for Righteousness, Abasement, Ignorance & Docility (A.F.R.A.I.D.), an organization that promotes the ideals of True Womanhood, lurk in the background to investigate the social mayhem being caused by this rebel.
Leaving Broadway, Fanny enters the notorious Five Points slum. Her pursuers, Senza Bliss, President of A.F.R.A.I.D, and Constance Purity, an ardent member of the Ladies Missionary Society, stop following Fanny. "Christian women, can go no further. " Leaving Five Points, Fanny hears Rachel Stitcher, a Jewish seamstress, and Bridget OMalley and Kathleen OLeary, two Irish-Catholic domestics, singing "Dollars and Dimes" on their way to work at the home of Senza Bliss.
Act I, Scene 2: Fanny accompanies the three workers to the Bliss home. Kathleen and Bridget s set to work, while Rachel (Fanny's informant) and Fanny confer. Rachel tells Fanny that she must investigate the deplorable working conditions at the Bliss & Fortune Factory. Fanny states that she is well aware of this situation, and will write about it.
From the working quarters of the great house, a trio "Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Tuesday" is sung by the three domestics. An impromptu meeting of A.F.R.A.I.D. has been called to assess the damage being caused by Fanny and her very successful columns. Belle Fortune, whom Senza strongly dislikes, is immediately dismissed to the garden, but instead, sneaks upstairs to visit her secret friend, Rachel.
Underneath the polite chit-chat of the formal tea party, signs of rebellion against Senza's tyrannical rule, are starting to show in irreverent asides. Maddy Broadbrim, wife of the police commissioner, remarks that her husband is taking her for a ride in the country. Luna Simon, a young spinster, remarks that "he must have something up his sleeve." The downtrodden Mary Lee parrots all that Senza or Constance say.
Iwanna Fortune casually asks Senza if her son has any plans of marrying soon. Senza is horrified for he is "a mere boy of only 25." Unknown to Senza is the fact that Harry Bliss, Jr. is engaged to Belle, the very last person Senza would choose for him.
After the ladies have departed, Senza confesses to Constance that she has helped Maddy Broadbrim's and Mary Lee's husbands to commit them to Dr. Delusions Home for Disagreeable Women. Here they may be reformed into excellent examples of True Womanhood. Suspecting Mrs. Fortune of some treachery, Senza and Constance then depart for Lord & Taylor to spy on her and Fanny Fern.
After Belle hurries off to arrive at Lord & Taylor before her mother, the domestics quickly finish their work so that they may enjoy their half-day off in Monroe Marketplace.
Act I, Scene 3: Fanny stands outside the doors of Lord & Taylor. The streets are bustling. Iwanna Fortune and her daughter, Belle, are shopping for Belles trousseau. Belle sings of how a proper young lady should act, pleasing her mother very much. After Mrs. Fortune leaves, Fanny approaches Belle, who reminds Fanny of herself in her youth. Fanny, endeavoring to give a proper education to Belle, explains the difference between being a pretty young girl and a middle-class housewife. Borrowing from her friend Mr. Dickens, Fanny shows Belle, the ghost of Future Bliss.
During the dream sequence, Belle quickly finds that she must not subject herself to Senza's dominion. Fanny urges Belle to persuade her new husband to "move far, far away from his mother."
Fanny continues Belles education by showing her the very real marriage present at Dr. Delusions Home for Disagreeable Women. Senza and Constance have arrived to witness Maddy and Luna, who are further along in their treatment, and who are now assisting in Mary Lee's treatment. Belle is horrified by what she sees and determines that she must find a way to help them. This awareness completes Belle's education.
Leaving Belle, Fanny sees Liza Dulin, an escaped slave, part-time performer at Almack's, and now caretaker of a high-class brothel. Fanny asks if there is any news about Lizas son who was sold as a child slave. Liza replies that there is no new information but she keeps hoping that one day he will escape and join her here. Fanny asks Liza for a favor. Kathleen and Bridget have now been caught with their boyfriends and dismissed by Senza. Although it would not be Fanny's preference, without references, there are few options for work. Liza, assures Fanny that as caretaker of a reputable house of illrepute, she will watch out for them. She has known both since they were children.
In the street, Bridget, Kathleen, Rachel and Liza accuse Mrs. Bliss, Purity and Fortune of being callous and hypocritical with regard to womankind ("If a woman once errs, kick her down"). The act ends with a question posed by Fanny to the A.F.R.A.I.D. group, "and what if you were they and they were you?" Would you believe the same?".
Act II: Senza calls the official meeting of A.F.R.A.I.D. to order and asks the newly reformed Maddy Broadbrim to lead the others in the national A.F.R.A.I.D. anthem. Mary Lee, newly escaped from Dr. Delusions, breaks into the meeting, followed by Rachel, Kathleen, Bridget, Luna, and Liza. She sings a satirical aria ("Ladies, ladies excuse me") about all that she has done to please her husband after having been re-educated at Dr. Delusion's. In the reformers quintet, Rachel campaigns for shorter work days and equal pay. Mary pleads for rights of the mentally ill and Luna leads the fight for suffrage and women's rights. Inspired by their bravery, Maddy joins in from her position for Temperance and Anti-tobacco. Liza now openly campaigns for abolition.
Senza tries to expel the interlopers, but is met with fierce resistance. Constance, trying to restore order, convinces Senza to allow them to stay. Senza delivers her address on True Womanhood.
Each of the Reformers rebuts Senza's address in their own manner. After Senza tells Mary Lee that as a divorcee, she is no better than a prostitute, Kathleen, Bridget and Liza ask "Why Are You Blamin' Everything On Us?" When Constance advises that "all are free in the Lord," Liza is prompted to sing "Freedom's Just a Word in a Book."
Iwanna Fortune, who has long been intimidated by Senza, is now convinced that she must join the reformers. She questions why Senza is so rigid in her beliefs, while Senza refuses to listen to anything said. In a powerful duet, long repressed emotions and beliefs are exposed. Senza, although showing a moment of vulnerability, becomes further entrenched within her walls of righteousness, while Mrs. Fortune is left questioning her whole life as she has lived it.
The reformers march off taking Maddy and Iwanna with them. Senza and Constance, leave in the opposite direction, even more resolute in their A.F.R.A.I.D. principles. Fanny ends the opera in a soliloquy hypothesizing each characters future, and quietly goes home to write her next column.