By Elsa Tranter
Photos courtesy of San Francisco Opera
The California gold rush of 1849, like so many events of the near and past times (think school renaming, removal of monuments, altering textbooks, discrediting political leaders) has been undergoing a revision in the minds of historians, with an eye to opening our eyes to the darkness below the light, or, in this case, the tarnish beneath the shine.
The latest operatic iteration of this theme, The Girls of the Golden West, is the new collaboration of John Adams and Sir Peter Sellars, those two well-known and well-respected musical geniuses, Adams for his music and Sellars for his librettos and direction. It was created for San Francisco Opera in a co-commission and co-production with the Dallas Opera and the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam. Other operas by John Adams, all produced by San Francisco Opera, include “Nixon in China”, “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Doctor Atomic”.
John Adams is a resident of the Bay Area (Berkeley) and has owned a cabin in the Sierra Nevada, very near where the action of this opera occurs. The subject and the action of the opera have been percolating in his mind for many years as he hiked and marveled at the beauty and majesty of the foothills of the Sierra. He is, of course, also very well aware of the degradation and destruction of so many parts of the area as a result of the mining and has seen the ghost towns that remain after the gold was mostly mined out.
This work, not to be confused with the early 20th century Puccini opera of almost the same name (“The Girl of the Golden West”), depicts the highs and the lows of the gold rush. Adams wrote his own music to words from diaries, journals, and mining songs, chief among them “The Shirley Letters” of Louise Clappe, a doctor’s wife who spent some time in California during the gold rush and wrote home to her family her observations. Other sources include an Argentinian poet who traveled to California, Mark Twain’s ‘Roughing It’, and, most movingly, Frederick Douglass’s speech “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?” from 1852. Sir Peter Sellars mixed and matched these many texts to form the libretto. The two men have worked together extensively and seem to have a very mutual admiration.
The set design, by David Gropman, combines period authenticity and anachronism and includes some beautifully crafted backdrops and stylized representations of redwood trees, a wagon made from Gold Rush design, and a gigantic 24 foot tree stump. There are no side curtains and the stage hands are visible throughout the performance, moving things on and off, giving an impression of the rustic unfinished nature of the times.
Rita Ryack, the costume designer, got much of her inspiration from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s photography collection. The costumes were a good mix of authenticity with enough modernity to make them look very pleasing to the eye. The one jarring sight was the quartet of dancers dressed like American flags in red, white and blue. Maybe that patriotic trend had started by then (just one year after California became part of the United States), but it didn’t ring true to me.
Unusual for opera, all of the principal singers and many of the choristers wore body mikes. This is part of the aesthetic of John Adams and was, to me, the first indication of inauthenticity. I think the principals all have voices that can be heard throughout the opera house and I know that the chorus members can sing to the rafters (on November 30th the whole chorus will give a concert at the Taube Auditorium where they can shine on their own) The miking was a mild annoyance and I don’t understand Adams’ need for it.
The story is a pastiche of gold rush times, from the enthusiasm and optimism of the 49ers and their followers to the darker side of things such as the mistreatment of women and the attempts by the white miners to rid the area of the minorities (Native Americans and Blacks) and the foreigners. It was not a pretty picture. Most of the stories had the ring of authenticity—yes, the composer and librettist did their homework well—, but it didn’t always go together well. There was quite a lot of characters telling us of what other people had done or said, using third person narration, and a lot of it was repetitive. (The opera runs 3 hours 20 minutes with one intermission.) There were moments of beauty and poignancy, one of which was when Josefa, was looking back on her life as she anticipated her death (sung first in her native Spanish and then again in English). Another was the former slave Ned Peters singing the words of Frederick Douglass on the 4th of July. The epilogue, in which Dame Shirley looks with optimism on the future ‘if we can only get along’ doesn’t quite overcome the darkness from the final scenes of violence.
The singing was uniformly very good. At curtain call time it was interesting to see that there were no individual bows for the principals—no star parts—but an excellent ensemble. Soprano Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley made a memorable debut. Her character was a thoughtful witness to all she saw and her letters were most insightful. A second debut was bass-baritone Davone Tines as Ned Peters, a former slave who becomes Dame Shirley’s driver and best friend (her husband, the doctor, is seen but not heard). His vocal power and physical dignity were a pleasure to hear and see. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as Clarence, one of the miners, completed the trio of debuting young singers. Other principal parts were sung by tenor Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon, another miner, mezzo-soprano J’Nail Bridges as Josefa Segovia, a Mexican woman working at the Empire hotel and her partner and fellow hotel worker Ramon, sung by Canadian baritone Elliot Madore. Their moments together, some in times of terror, were beautifully performed. Rounding out the principals was Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee as Ah Sing, a Chinese prostitute hoping to retire to a farm of her own. This mostly American cast of singers should all have continuing success on the opera stage. It was satisfying to see so many of them together on stage. The former San Francisco Ballet principal dancer Lorena Feijoo gave a rousing performance in the famous Spider Dance of Lola Montez. And, finally, the men of the San Francisco Opera Chorus did their usual magic of being part of the ensemble and singing rousingly throughout the evening.
The orchestra was conducted by Grant Gershon, making his debut with the company. In addition to the usual instrumentation there were an accordion and a guitar, and the percussion section included cowbells, and a whip. The orchestra performed at its usual high standard throughout the evening.
Is “Girls of the Golden West” an opera for the repertoire? Will it resonate outside California? Is it too much truth, so very present to this day, to subject ourselves to? Having seen it twice within a week, I’m still left with questions. I found more to like on second viewing and have heard from those who have seen all three performances so far and felt that the third one was a charm. So maybe, like with so much of what is new, it takes repetition to appreciate the virtues and maybe we do need to look at our societies underside. The opera is scheduled to appear in Amsterdam in 2019 and in Dallas in 2021.
Four performances remain in San Francisco: Wednesday November 29, Saturday December 2, Tuesday December 5, Thursday December 7, all at 7:30 and finally Sunday December 10 at 2:00. See it and come to your own conclusions.
Elsa Tranter is a Bostonian who has lived in Berkeley for over 40 years and has been an opera goer for most of those years. She worked as a graduate student adviser at UC Berkeley and still attends Cal Performances regularly. Her favorite composer is Wagner and her favorite opera is Tristan und Isolde.