California Sound

John Adams and Peter Sellars create The Girls of the Golden West, a new work about the Gold Rush, for San Francisco Opera.
By Joe Cadagin
Illustration by Ben Kirchner
 

California Sound hdl 1017
Illustration by Ben Kirchner
“I WAS FASCINATED BY HOW A WOMAN COULD SURVIVE AMONGST THE MOST UNPREDICTABLE OF PEOPLE, THESE GOLD MINERS.” –Adams

THERE'S A MOMENT IN ACT III OF JOHN ADAMS'S NIXON IN CHINA when the relentless orchestral accompaniment gives way to a dreamy, bossa nova-esque samba for piano and woodblock. Plush strings support First Lady Pat as she sings a snippet of what sounds like some forgotten Great American Songbook ballad from the ’30s or ’40s: “Oh California, hold me close. Hold me close.” The passage doesn’t last longer than ninety seconds, but it’s enough to transport us from a grubby hotel in the PRC to a Malibu paradise—swaying palm trees, art deco beach houses and moonlit boardwalks. It’s music that could only have been written by a composer as intimately familiar with California as Adams, who has lived in the Bay Area since 1971.

In June, I spoke with the composer about his latest opera project, Girls of the Golden West, which will have its world premiere at San Francisco Opera in November. The bulk of the opera was written between May 2015 and November 2016, at which point Adams took off several months from composing to conduct performances of his operas and orchestral works across the U.S. and Europe as part of a seventieth-birthday celebration tour. The new opera will be the grand finale, though when we spoke, Adams still had a couple of scenes left to finish before beginning the tedious proofreading process.

Five minutes into our lunch at Oliveto, an Oakland restaurant near Adams’s Berkeley residence, it becomes clear how deeply rooted the former New Englander has become in California. The walls next to our table are adorned with black-and-white images of century-old olive trees; they were taken by Adams’s wife, photographer Deborah O’Grady, at an orchard in Oroville, seventy miles north of Sacramento. As Adams begins to tell me about his cabin, perched 6,600 feet up in the High Sierra, the restaurant owner interrupts to ask about the composer’s new hobby—baking bread with extremely fine flour grown by local farmers. 

Adams’s mountain getaway isn’t far from where the real-life events of Girls of the Golden West took place. Act I opens in the mining settlement Rich Bar. It’s 1851, a year after California’s statehood and three years after a carpenter at Sutter’s Mill first saw flakes of yellow metal flashing in the American River. Enter Girl Number One—Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, or Dame Shirley to you. For fifteen months, Dame Shirley and her husband, a doctor, lived among the forty-niners of Rich Bar. The twenty-three letters she wrote to her sister in Massachusetts—published serially in Pioneer Magazine—give a detailed account of Gold Rush life, providing text for much of the opera’s libretto. “I love this woman,” Adams tells me. “She just has this wonderful sense of wit.” Dame Shirley’s charm stems from the self-deprecating humor with which she assesses her own situation: a refined, educated woman who peppers her prose with French phrases is desperate to play the part of the pioneer wife and hold her own alongside the mining “blowhards,” as Adams calls them. She serves as a narrator in the opera, portrayed by soprano Julia Bullock, who will sing word-for-word excerpts from her character’s correspondences.

“ALL THE STORIES OF THE WEST WERE ABOUT MEN,” says Adams. “And there were very few women out here at the time. Very few. And I was fascinated by how a woman could survive amongst the most unpredictable of people, these gold miners. Some of them were just criminals, and others were fairly decent people. But they were crazed. And a lot of them ended up completely broken people after two or three years. And how did a woman survive in that environment? How did a woman deal with just plain personal hygiene in these terribly coarse conditions?”

The idea for a Gold Rush-era opera seen through the eyes of female characters came from director and librettist Peter Sellars, Adams’s longtime collaborator. La Scala offered Sellars the opportunity to direct Puccini’s Fanciulla del West, based on David Belasco’s 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West. But he turned it down after doing some research into mid-nineteenth-century California. “It’s one of those things where the truth is so much cooler than anything you could invent,” Sellars says via Skype from Salzburg, where he is directing a production of Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito. Girls of the Golden West, as he pitched it to Adams, would be a more true-to-life account of the Gold Rush, rooted in source documents. This historical-realist mission would involve focusing attention on groups that are often overlooked in textbooks and fiction—women, but also the nonwhite populations in Northern California, attracted by the same siren song of striking it rich as East Coast prospectors.

“I don’t have any disparagement or critique of the Belasco libretto,” says Adams. “I think it’s a period piece, very much in the same way that Jack London is. But Jack London, if you read it carefully, there’s a lot that’s left out. People wanted to read certain stories. They didn’t want to read about the Chinese, and they didn’t want to read about the Mexicans, and they didn’t want to read about the very few black people that were here. So it’s a kind of alternative Fanciulla.”

Sellars pieced together a number of diary entries, essays and poems to form an overarching narrative in Girls of the Golden West,told from various perspectives. This textual approach has garnered some criticism. “It’s very controversial,” Adams says. “It’s always the first line of attack from critics. Even [for] Doctor Atomic, several reviews started with, ‘Bah! It’s not a real libretto.’” But Sellars says this arrangement of numerous sources gives a more accurate picture of the past, allowing figures who have been erased from the past to come forward and tell their stories. “We’re far enough advanced in human history by now to know that there is no single voice of history, but that history is made by dozens of voices—by millions of voices. What’s interesting is all of the interaction of all those different voices and the contradiction of this voice next to that voice. All of that accumulation is actually the texture of history.” 

Alongside Dame Shirley, there is Ramón Gil Navarro, a sophisticated Argentine political exile and journalist who, in his own diaries, addressed racial intolerance toward Latin Americans in Gold Rush-era California. The Chinese prostitute Ah Sing sings settings of poems by Cantonese laborer immigrants. “There are these incredible ‘Gold Mountain Poems’ that were written, in many cases, on the walls of the detention centers where Chinese were being held before they were let in, or when they were being deported,” says Sellars. “Without China there would be no California. The Chinese presence in the heart of California is so important. So this character is meant to absolutely captivate you and break your heart.” Included in her musical material is what Sellars calls the “great immigrant’s aria”—“someone coming to America and everything they’re seeing—their life and everything they’ve sacrificed to get here.”

The aria is part of the buildup in Act II, an escalation of racial tensions on the Fourth of July among the diverse mining populations. Ned, a black cook and violinist, sings a segment of Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech “The Meaning of July Fourth for the Negro” before being chased away by white miners. The act culminates in the trial of Josefa Segovia, a Mexican–American woman who was hanged after stabbing a white miner who attempted to rape her on Independence Day 1851. Her final aria, with a Spanish-language text by Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, serves as the dramatic and musical climax of the opera: “It’s an amazing, blistering moment,” says Adams. “She says to these men, ‘You want me to be perfect. You want me to be chaste. You want me to be the ideal of womanhood. And you won’t let me be who I am.’” 

“It’s one of the most intolerable and somehow also inspiring moments in Western history,” says Sellars. “Needless to say, right now we’re living in a time of unprecedented violence against women, and men exonerating themselves for it, and the voice of the women absolutely being doubted, ignored or just shunted away.” 

This connection to the present is significant. For Sellars and Adams—a team known for bringing to operatic life some of the most critical moments of the twentieth century—the turn toward nineteenth-century source material is unexpected. Girls of the Golden West is meant to hold up a mirror to today’s society, especially for those living on the West Coast. The Mexican–American presence in the opera, for example, has political implications in an era of controversial deportations: “We tend to forget that a good half to a third of the United States of America was always Mexico,” Sellars reminds me. 

There’s also a warning for Silicon Valley “prospectors” intent on unearthing their own nuggets. “The Silicon Valley comparison is kind of interesting, because there was this idea that you could become immensely rich overnight,” says Adams. “I read about the startup companies that are valued in the billions of dollars—and it’s all just imaginary. What’s this billions of dollars based on? It’s based on advertising potential. It’s all just hot air. And anybody who lived through the dot-com crash knows that it’s coming down the pike. It may not come for a while, but it’s going to come. And that’s what happened with the Gold Rush. It was this enormous bubble.”

The contemporary relevance is what attracts San Francisco Opera’s general manager, Matthew Shilvock, to Girls of the Golden West. For Shilvock, this is one of the main factors to consider when commissioning a new opera. “It’s very important for me that, wherever possible, the work we’re doing on our stage has a local connection,” says Shilvock. “And I think, with Girls of the Golden West, it’s completely our story. It’s completely the story of the formation of Northern California in contemporary times.” 

THE PULSE OF SAN FRANCISCO AND CALIFORNIA BEATS through Adams’s score. Much of the libretto draws on Gold Rush-era song lyrics, sung by an all-male choir of forty-niners, but Adams avoided a “folksy” pastiche of Stephen Foster-style tunes. “I actually looked online at the Library of Congress for musical material from that period. But what I found was just really terrible,” he says. Instead, it was the “raw, tough” unpretentiousness of Kurt Weill’s early operatic works—the Mahagonny-Songspiel in particularthat inspired the composer’s re-settings of these songs. But Sellars argues that Adams’s true “California music” is not so much linked to any specific time period or historical style as it is an expression of the West Coast landscape. “He’s not using any of the obvious signifiers, ever. He’s always doing something that is utterly, profoundly from his own language. Yet there he is, he has totally evoked a place, and you are there, and the music puts you there”—whether that place be the untapped coastal cliffs in his electric-violin concerto The Dharma at Big Sur (2003) or an urban cityscape of Los Angeles in his symphony City Noir (2009). “It is totally California music,” Sellars adds. “It’s music that is so deep in the California landscape that you say, ‘This could only come from one place in the world.’” spacer 

Joe Cadagin  is a doctoral candidate in musicology at Stanford University. 



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