Dallas — As I have written about before, I consider composer John Adams one of the most innovative and influential opera composers of the last 30 years, and I had the privilege of working at San Francisco Opera as Executive Director (COO) and CFO when Dr. Atomic premiered there as a commission by then-General Director Pamela Rosenberg. When I learned several years ago that San Francisco Opera was working with John Adams and Peter Sellars on a new commission, I leapt at the chance to collaborate on this exciting project. The Dallas Opera (TDO) quickly became a co-commissioner and co-producer of the new work, working with San Francisco and Dutch National Opera. TDO’s role as co-commissioner and co-producer also gave me the opportunity to attend a week of staging rehearsals of the new work this past summer (generously underwritten by a grant from OPERA America).
Having grown up in Northern California, I knew that the Gold Rush period, so vital to California’s economic development and population growth, was often seen through rose-colored spectacles. School history classes tended to focus on the more savory aspects of the Gold Rush—such as the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill in 1848, the influx of immigrants from all over the world, and the growth of the city of San Francisco—so it was possible to see the events of the mid-19th century with an emphasis on the positive, and a comfortable level of emotional detachment.
When the opera was first described to me, part of the appeal of John and Peter’s conception of the work was that it would be based on historical accounts of the period. This approach ensured that the audience would have to face some of the less admirable aspects of California’s history, no matter how uncomfortable. Sellars’s libretto based many of the characters, and much of the action, on letters from the writer Louise Clappe, who wrote under the pen name “Dame Shirley.” He also incorporated—as is his custom—a wide range of literary sources (including Chinese immigrant poetry, memoirs of fugitive slaves, and the ever-popular Mark Twain). Furthermore, as the introduction to the synopsis of the opera notes, “Most of the incidents depicted actually occurred during the Gold Rush, in 1851, in Rich Bar and in Downieville, on the first Fourth of July in the new state of California.”
In evaluating TDO’s potential participation as a co-commissioner and co-producer, I was also attracted by the varied characters that Peter Sellars as librettist could draw on for the production, including the gold miners themselves, who had enough of a classical education to know every line of Shakespeare’s plays, and yet were rough enough to bully or even kill in order to steal another miner’s claim. I also knew that John Adams had spent considerable time in this part of California, which gave him a unique feel for the rugged beauty of this part of the world. That attracted me to the work, as Gold Rush greed played out against a backdrop of spectacular scenic beauty in the Sierra Nevadas. I felt confident that John’s music would capture these contrasts, too.
The new opera was given the title Girls of the Golden West, as a nod to Puccini’s opera Fanciulla del West. The similarities end there, however. Adams and Sellars’ opera is organized in two acts, both with five parts, and there is also an epilogue at the end of Act II. The dramatic structure of this opera is traditional, but effective. Act I introduces most of the major characters (with the exception of the famous dancer and entertainer, Lola Montez), the miners’ chorus (expertly prepared by Chorus Director Ian Robertson), and the major plot elements. Act II builds to a climax with the stabbing of Joe Cannon by Josefa, and her lynching by an angry mob. The music is some of John Adam’s best, with many gradations of tone, texture, pace, and orchestration, which keeps the listener fully engaged in a complex plot. The orchestra of 67 is substantial, but not huge, and in addition to a rich percussion section includes piano, guitar and accordion. Vocal lines are skillfully set to the varied texts, and the singers used the text to full advantage in the portrayal of their characters. The production incorporates some amplification, carefully produced by Mark Grey (who also worked on sound design with TDO for Show Boat, and the company’s productions for the OPERA America conference). Standouts in the cast included J’Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia, Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley (doubling as Lady Macbeth), Elliot Madore as Ramón, and Davóne Tines as fugitive slave Ned Peters.
The production, designed by David Gropman, includes both realistic elements (e.g. a giant Redwood tree stump) and a saloon bar, and more abstract ones (such as curvilinear outlines of redwood trees). The iconic tree stump – another sad relic of an era that lacked an environmental conscience—forms an effective stage for the “performances within the performance” of both Macbeth and the “Spider Dance.” Sellars and Gropman also include deliberately anachronistic touches (e.g. neon signs in The Empire hotel). Seeing these designs in their early stages, I was not sure how this blend of realistic and abstract elements would mesh in one production, but at the premiere, I found the effect contributed to the timeless quality of the piece, and its ability to link events that occurred more than 150 years ago with life in the U.S. in the 21st century.
With the benefit of a head start from the rehearsal process, three particular moments remain vivid in my mind since the premiere. The first is the beginning of Act II, when Dame Shirley plays the role of Lady Macbeth on a stage for the miners, who shower her with gold in appreciation. The larger-than-life character Lola Montez—who among many other colorful incidents in her short life had affairs with both Franz Liszt and Bavaria’s King Ludwig—performed her signature “Spider Dance” for the miners (entertainingly performed by former principal dancer of the San Francisco Ballet, Lorena Feijóo). In this unique dance, very tame by contemporary standards, Ms. Montez mimes spiders crawling up her petticoats, which she lifts provocatively before brushing the spiders away and stomping them to death. The segment also provides a great opportunity for John Adams to display his more whimsical and puckish compositional side, and the music for the dance had its premiere in 2016 at the Cabrillo Festival, conducted by Marin Alsop. (As an aside, Maestra Alsop returned this year to lead masterclasses for our third residency of the Hart Institute for Women Conductors, where she was an inspiring presence for all participants).
The most powerful moment of the evening occurs near the very end of the opera, when the miners sing of their bitterness with life in the Gold Rush country before lynching Josefa (who had killed Joe Cannon with his own knife when he attempted to rape her). John’s powerful music perfectly captures their furious frustration, thereby showing the duality of the miners—sophisticated enough to appreciate Shakespeare, and yet angry enough to kill an innocent woman who had defended herself against assault and rape. The epilogue provides a perfect contrast between humanity at its most brutal, and the extraordinarily “wonderful and never-enough-to-be-talked-about sky of California,” to quote Dame Shirley, which provides some light at the end of a very dark series of events.
This outstanding new work travels next to Amsterdam for performances at Dutch National Opera, and then to Dallas, where the performances will take place in March of 2021. TDO’s Music Director Emmanuel Villaume will conduct, and Peter Sellars will direct (something of a scheduling miracle in itself!). Casting Manager David Lomeli and I are working now with Maestro Emmanuel Villaume to complete the casting for The Dallas Opera performances. All new works evolve, and I am sure that the composer and artistic team will make some adjustments before the next set of performances, but I found Girls of the Golden West thoroughly compelling, and an important addition to John Adams’ remarkable body of work.
We are honored to be a part of this uniquely ambitious project.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears the first Friday of each month in TheaterJones.com.
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