The opera tells two tales, separated in time but parallel in characters and theme. In present day Central City, CO, Isabel, a member of the opera chorus, and her friend Larry visit the Teller House bar. Larry orders champagne and asks about the face painted on the floor. Tom, the bartender, tells the story, which is enacted as he becomes a 19th century bartender named John, who welcomes the bargirl Madeline (played by Isabel) as they toast to the future.
A disheveled traveler, Matt (played by Larry), enters and orders drinks for all while Madeline is asked to sing. Unable to pay for the drinks, Matt offers instead to paint a portrait on the barroom floor of the only woman he ever loved. John discovers the portrait is of Madeline. The two men fight until Madeline throws herself between them, with tragic consequences. Larry, now back in the twentieth century, laughs drunkenly at the old legend and forces Isabel to dance with him. Tom now reveals his past romantic relationship with Isabel and challenges Larry. Events in the past repeat themselves in the present, continuing the legend of the face on the barroom floor.
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