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A Rattlesnake in the Opera House

The Dallas Opera is part of a four-company consortium producing a new John Adams opera, premiering in San Francisco in 2017. Keith Cerny offers early insight.

published Sunday, September 4, 2016



Dallas — Alert readers of opera media will have noticed that The Dallas Opera is co-commissioning, and co-producing, John Adams’ next opera, Girls of the Golden West, as part of an elite consortium that includes San Francisco Opera, Dutch National Opera, and Teatro La Fenice. The opera will premiere in San Francisco with seven performances in the fall of 2017.

It has been one of my aspirations since joining the Dallas Opera in 2010 to work with John Adams, and so this premiere represents a special thrill for me, especially since Adams’ operas have had a remarkable impact on modern American Opera. As I have noted in previous columns, I believe that Nixon in China, commissioned by David Gockley when he was General Director in Houston, is one of the finest operas composed in the last 30 thirty years; Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Moby-Dick, which TDO is reviving this fall, is another.

Nixon remains important because it expanded so many artistic boundaries. The choice of subject matter was uniquely contemporary, and librettist Alice Goodman wrote compelling text that blended the practical and the philosophical. How many operas about major political figures are premiered when the protagonists are still alive, and feature a jumbo jet landing on stage in the opening minutes of the work?  Every time I listen to the opening scene of the opera, which runs under 20 minutes, I am struck by how much innovation—in form, in texture, in orchestration, in vocal and choral writing—Adams packed into a short time span in the theater. The Chorus number “The people are the heroes now” and Nixon’s aria “News has a kind of mystery” are both boldly new in their musical language, and James Maddalena in his many performances of the role of the President made this aria sound completely natural and instinctive, despite its many challenges.

Photo: Vern Evans
John Adams

In the opening minutes of the opera, we also learn that the characters are complex, multilayered personalities. In Nixon’s “News” aria, he sings “…The rats begin to chew / The sheets…” as an aside, with sinister brass underscoring; this prepares the audience for the exploration, later in the opera, of the idea that he was suffering from PTSD. This softens Nixon’s character, or at least opens the door to the possibility of an audience empathizing with the troubled title character. To me the work is so clearly innovative, powerful, and significant, that it is surprising that critics were divided about early productions. Such is the way of opera, though: even Bizet’s Carmen, now considered too popular by many purists, had a rocky reception when it premiered before shocked and outraged audiences.

When I worked as Executive Director (Chief Operating Officer) and CFO at San Francisco Opera between 2004 and 2007, I had the opportunity to work with then-General Director Pamela Rosenberg as part of the team bringing Adams’ Doctor Atomic to life; I especially loved Adams’s setting in this opera of John Donne’s Holy Sonnet “Batter my heart, three-person’d God,” which has now become a staple of the audition repertoire. (As an aside, this aria is also used as the basis of the third movement of Adams' Doctor Atomic Symphony. Despite the exquisite solo trumpet playing in the Royal Scottish National Orchestra recording, my favorite interpretation is still Gerald Finley singing the aria). The opera attracted great interest, especially in the tech-friendly San Francisco Bay Area, and sales were very strong—we sold 17,000 single tickets for 10 performances, and I rewarded the box office team with several large cakes to celebrate. I think this premiere remains one of the high points of Rosenberg’s tenure in San Francisco. We also worked with filmmaker Jon Else to create a gripping film entitled Wonders are Many: The Making of Doctor Atomic, which wove together historical footage of the Manhattan Project, interviews, and rehearsal footage of the opera with Maestro Donald Runnicles conducting.

A common thread through these operas is Director (and sometime librettist) Peter Sellars, who also worked with John Adams and librettist Alice Goodman on the more controversial Death of Klinghoffer. In describing Sellars’ early career, John Adams writes in his exceptionally well-written autobiography, Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life, “Peter Sellars…had done the equivalent of throwing a live rattlesnake into the staid and conservative lawn party that was Boston’s musical life.” I should hasten to point out that I found working with Sellars to be a fascinating, stimulating, exhilarating and invigorating experience. Adams is referring to Peter’s major and positive impact as a Director; not implying that working with Peter leaves anyone “snake bit,” either literally or figuratively.

When the opportunity to collaborate with John and Peter on a new opera took shape, through a commission led by San Francisco Opera, I leapt at the chance. As with other works by Sellars, the libretto is constructed largely from contemporaneous writings—an approach to the subject matter which keeps the text on solid footing despite the mythological hype that surrounds the Great California Gold Rush. A doctor’s wife named Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, who wrote letters from the Rich Bar mining camp under the pen name of “Dame Shirley,” described gold mining, claim disputes, whippings, murders, lynchings and meetings with the Native American population. To quote San Francisco Opera’s original release, “…the Gold Rush brought out the very best and the very worst of human traits, from scenes of ugly nativist racism and casual violence to examples of nobility, generosity and ingenuity—and of course there was always that great humor, gritty and self-deprecating.”

The title of the opera is Girls of the Golden West, a reference to Puccini’s La fanciulla del West, but Puccini’s opera is a tale about one woman, Minnie, so the noun is singular (Girl of the Golden West). Puccini wrote a dozen operas—the “golden dozen” as they are called—and Fanciulla is one of the most challenging to produce. First, it represents a European’s efforts to capture the spirit of the American Gold Rush—a daunting task to pull off with enough authenticity to persuade an American audience. Fanciulla also lacks the usual big arias of a Puccini opera (except for the famous tenor aria “Ch’ella mi Creda”), which makes it a tougher sell at the box office. Dramatically, the work is something of a muddle, and the ending, in which the local miners allow their beloved “house mother” Minnie to escape with the bandit Ramerrez, strains the credulity of even the most dedicated, open-minded opera lover. However, the music is subtle, brilliantly orchestrated, and worth the time to get to know. I should mention that TDO’s Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume, conducted a series of performances this summer at Santa Fe Opera, and brought all of the opera’s musical merits to life, including its influences from Debussy and Strauss. Patricia Racette gave an exceptional performance, in which she projected the sassy Mae West side of Minnie’s character, as well as the girlish vulnerability displayed when Minnie invites Johnson (spoiler alert: he turns out to be Ramerrez) into her cabin. Tenor Gwyn Hughes Jones also gave an outstanding performance as Minnie’s love interest, Dick Johnson (the role sung by Enrico Caruso at the Met’s premiere of the work in 1910), and Dallas favorite Raymond Aceto shone as Ashby.

Adams’s opera, Girls of the Golden West, presents an unvarnished take on the American Gold Rush. (I had the chance to read, and hear, extensive segments of the new work earlier this year). I liken the concept to Clint Eastwood’s 1992 Anti-Western, Unforgiven, set in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, and its answer to the Technicolor, sugar-coated Westerns with unambiguous good guys, unrepentant bad guys, and a single moral narrative. In the same vein, Adams and Sellars’ view of the Gold Rush is more nuanced and more negative, on balance, than that held by Puccini and his librettists for Fanciulla, Civinini and Zangarini. (A side note: Puccini’s opera was based on a 1905 stage play by the legendary David Belasco, the same author whose earlier play inspired Puccini’s Madama Butterfly).

Having grown up in California, my earliest impressions of Adams’ new opera—a work in progress—were deeply personal. On the one hand, I was caught off-guard by the questionable behavior of some of the characters; the story of the Gold Rush taught in schools is usually sunnier and more optimistic. On the other hand, the work is based on historical events, so it is hard to argue against the sexual exploitation, greed, violence and intolerance shown onstage. Leavening the work is the love story between two main characters, while the setting in the magnificent Sierra Mountains reminds us that there is a great deal of beauty in this world, too. I will be interested to see how Dallas audiences respond, as they will come with a fresher perspective to the events of the California Gold Rush—although they too, will undoubtedly see some linkages with Texas history and Old West mythology.

The San Francisco Opera will premiere the opera, after which it will travel to its European partners. In Dallas, we have engaged Peter Sellars as Stage Director, and a number of the original cast members; our acclaimed Music Director, Emmanuel Villaume, will conduct. Sellars brings a unique working style and intensity to his directing, and I look forward to welcoming him to Dallas.

The downside, if there is one, is that The Dallas Opera will be presenting the opera in our 2020-2021 season in order to line up director and conductor schedules. I’m confident it will be well worth the wait. For me, too, the chance to work with John Adams, Peter Sellars, Emmanuel Villaume, and The Dallas Opera Orchestra and Chorus in a major new opera is hard to beat. In the meantime, I am very much looking forward to the premiere in San Francisco just over a year from now. I’ll be sure to share my impressions with you in this column.


◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Sunday of each month in








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A Rattlesnake in the Opera House
The Dallas Opera is part of a four-company consortium producing a new John Adams opera, premiering in San Francisco in 2017. Keith Cerny offers early insight.
by Keith Cerny

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