The setting is ancient China. The fisherman (tenor) acts as commentator on the story's events.
At the seashore just before sunrise, a fisherman hears the song of the nightingale, which causes him to forget his troubles. The cook (soprano) has brought officials from the court of the Emperor to hear the nightingale (soprano), telling of the beauty of its singing. However, the nightingale is nowhere to be heard. The court chamberlain (baritone) promises the cook a position as private cook to the Emperor, if she can find the nightingale. The nightingale does finally appear, and receives an invitation from the cook and the chamberlain to sing for the Emperor. The nightingale accepts the invitation, but says that its sweetest song is in the forest.
Courtiers festoon the palace with lanterns in advance of the singing of the nightingale. The cook tells the courtiers about the nightingale, that it is small, gray and virtually invisible, but its song causes its listeners to cry. A procession denotes the Emperor's arrival, and the Emperor (bass-baritone) commands the nightingale to sing. The singing touches the Emperor deeply, and he offers the bird a reward of a golden slipper to wear about its neck. Later, three Japanese emissaries offer the Emperor a mechanical nightingale, which begins to sing. The genuine bird flies away, and the angry Emperor orders it banished from his realm. He names the mechanical bird "first singer".
The Emperor is ill and near death. The figure of Death is in the Emperor's chamber. The ghosts of the Emperor's past deeds visit him. The Emperor calls for his court musicians, but the genuine nightingale has reappeared, in defiance of the imperial edict, and begun to sing. Death (contralto) hears the nightingale's song and is greatly moved, and asks it to continue. The nightingale agrees, on condition that Death returns to the Emperor his crown, sword and standard. Death assents and gradually removes himself from the scene as the nightingale continues to sing. The Emperor slowly regains his strength, and on seeing the nightingale, offers it the "first singer" post at court. The nightingale says that it is satisfied with the Emperor's tears as reward, and promises to sing for him each night from dusk until dawn.