Three decades ago the team of composer John Adams and director Peter Sellars (with librettist Alice Goodman) created “Nixon in China”, one of the most durable operatic works of the late 20th century. Sellars and Adams joined forces again for “Girls of the Golden West”, with Sellars as both director and librettist.
Their collaboration produced an opera that chronicles the impact of California’s Gold Rush on seven principal characters, as declining prospects for gold inflamed racial and ethnic tensions in their mining community.
[Below: the opening scene of “The Girls of the Golden West”; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The Girls: Julia Bullock, J’Nai Bridges and Hye Jung Lee
The opera is loosely based on the experiences of “Dame Shirley”, the nom de plume of an historical figure – a doctor’s wife who wrote 23 literary epistles describing her experiences in the gold fields of Northeastern California (although librettist Sellars has fictionalized much of her story). The part of Dame Shirley was stylishly sung by Missouri soprano Julia Bullock in her San Francisco Opera debut.
[Below: Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Washington mezzo-soprano J’nai Bridges sang the role Josefa Segovia, who bartends and works the tables at the gold-mining community’s Empire Hotel. For the hotel to survive, we are assured, it requires an attractive woman (like Bridges’ Josefa) working there.
Theatrically, the meatiest of the three principal female roles, Bridges brought dramatic intensity to a part that includes a love affair and marriage proposal, her killing of an unwanted suitor who attempts her rape, and her death at the hands of a lynch mob.
[Below: J’Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
South Korean coloratura soprano Hye Jung Lee was Ah Sing, who, through judicious management of her earnings from selling sexual favors to the miners, has achieved financial comfort.
Lee, who was memorable as Madame Mao in the first San Francisco Opera performances of Adams’ most famous work [see 25 Years Old, “Nixon in China” Arrives at San Francisco Opera – June 8, 2012], was an engaging presence, adding vocal sparkle to her scene in her bedroom workplace.
[Below: Hye Jung Lee as Ah Sing; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The Guys: Ryan McKinny, Paul Appleby, Elliot Madore and Davóne Tines
Strong performances from a quartet of male singers and excellent work from the San Francisco Opera male chorus suggested that if the opera were titled “Guys and Girls of the Golden West” it would be fully justified.
The evening was the occasion for the overdue San Francisco Opera debut of baritone Ryan McKinny, whose work at the Houston Grand Opera, Los Angeles Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Glimmerglass Festival and Korean Opera Festival I have praised [see, for example, A Theatrically Brilliant “Streetcar Named Desire” Stars Fleming, McKinny, Tappan and Griffey – Los Angeles Opera, May 18, 2014 and Review: Penda, McKinny, Brubaker, Jagde Impress in Daniel Slater’s Psychiatrically Searing “Salome” – Santa Fe Opera, July 31, 2015.]
McKinny, possessing a strong, focused baritone and handsome physical appearance, began the opera with an appealing opening monologue that celebrated the sudden appearance in one geographical area of a racially, ethnically and linguistically diverse but overwhelmingly masculine population, filled with lust, passion and desire for rapid accumulation of wealth. Later, the mining community’s turmoil brought forth Clarence’s meaner aspects.
[Below: Ryan McKinny as Clarence; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Indiana tenor Paul Appleby was riveting in the role of Joe Cannon, who, having left Missouri home to earn money to be married, then learns of his girlfriend’s infidelities, is on a downward sprial throughout the opera. The darkest role I’ve seen Appleby assay, the role of Joe encompasses lovelorn despair, alcoholism, attempted rape and, ultimately, death at Josefa’s hand.
Appleby, whom I have admired as Mozart’s Don Ottavio and Tamino and as the Fritz of Offenbach’s Grand Duchess [See Susan Graham’s Star Glows in Offenbach’s Sexy, Witty “Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” – Santa Fe Opera, June 28, 2013] attacks this very different role with dramatic abandon, realistically portraying the dissolution of an initially likeable man.
[Below: Paul Appleby, left is Joe Cannon and Elliott Madore, right, is Ramón; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Canadian baritone Elliott Madore (whose San Francisco Opera debut had occurred two seasons prior as Anthony Hope in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd”), sang beautifully in the role of the Chilean bartender Ramón, impressive in his duet with Bridges’ Josefa in which he proposes that they marry.
Virginia bass-baritone Davóne Tines, another artist performing his San Francisco Opera debut, left a forceful impression as Ned Peters, in the opera a runaway slave who finds himself at odds with the community in addition to being the resourceful cook of whom Dame Shirley wrote. Tines’ performance was vocally strong and dramatically effective.
[Below: Davóne Tines as Ned Peters; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Maestro Grant Gershon and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus
Maestro Grant Gershon, who plays a prominent role in the musical leadership of the Los Angeles Opera, presided over the San Francisco Opera Orchestra with authority. The San Francisco Opera Chorus, its men prominent in the barroom scenes, provided some of evening’s musical highlights. Scottish chorus director Ian Robertson led the chorus.
[Below: The men of the mining community (San Francisco Opera Chorus) gather at the bar of the Empire hotel; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
An extended dance sequence introduced the historical character, actress/dancer Lola Montez. Adams’ music representing Montez’ famous “spider dance” was performed by Cuban dancer Lorena Feijoo and choreographed by Alaska choreographer John Heginbotham.
David Gropman’s Set Designs and Rita Ryack’s Costumes
California designer David Gropman and Massachusetts designer Rita Ryack created respectively the sets and costumes.
[Below: Ah Sing (Hye Jung Lee, left) intends to cheer up the depressed Joe Cannon (Paul Appleby, on bed); edited image, based on a Cory Weaer photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The visual design was modest, relying on simple sets and on furniture brought on stage as needed by stagehands. Connecticut designer James F. Ingalls created the lighting design.
Peter Sellars as Librettist and Director
The team of composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars has been one of the most fruitful operatic collaborations of contemporary times.
[Below: Dame Shirley (Julia Bullock, right) and Ned Peters (Davóne Tines, left) become fast friends; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
The title of Adams’ opera is palpably an homage to David Belasco’sThe Girl of the Golden West and Puccini’s opera “La Fanciulla del West”, based on Belasco’s play. Earlier this year, in a San Francisco Opera Company briefing for members of the press and media, I asked Peter Sellars the question as to what extent he believed that Belasco and Puccini “got the Gold Rush right”.
Sellars response suggested that Belasco, writing in the first decade of the 20th century, had succumbed to the stereotypical thinking about the ’49ers and the indigenous populations that inspired the “cowboy and Indian” movies. Sellars gave low marks to the stereotypes present in Belasco’s play, and, of course, to the libretto of the opera based on it.
[Below: the drunken Joe Cannon (Paul Appleby, left) kidnaps and tries to rape Josefa (J’Nai Bridges, right), which proves to be a fatal error; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera.]
Obviously Sellars’ and Adams’ research into the populations of the Northern Mother Lode communities led to a libretto that attempted to weave together the stories of a miner, a New England doctor’s wife, a Missouri man escaping an unhappy love affair, a runaway slave turned cowboy, a Chilean bartender, a Mexican woman and a Chinese prostitute. Each of their stories is absorbing and the interactions of these characters are plotted in interesting ways.
“Girls of the Golden West” is an idea opera that raises issues about greed, nativism and racial and ethnic strife, that continue to be relevant in contemporary times. The inclusion of multiple storylines and ideas in a single operatic work, however, comes at a cost of lengthening the work, impacting its dramatic flow and decreasing the time available to develop each individual character.
Thoughts on a New “Gold Rush” Opera
Composer John Adams spends much of his time in the most Northerly of California’s Mother Lode Counties, and Gold Rush history, including the Dame Shirley letters that focus on California’s Butte and Plumas counties, are a subject that has personal appeal and musical inspiration for him.
In a ceremony following the opera’s world premiere, in which he was awarded the San Francisco Opera gold medal, Adams suggested that California, a state known for its welcoming of diversity, is a hospitable place for the opera’s premiere. The opera is co-sponsored by two other companies, The Dallas Opera and Amsterdam’s Dutch National Opera, assuring that new audiences will experience the work.
“Girls of the Golden West” is an ambitious opera that will appeal to aficionados, respectively, of the evolution of composer John Adams’ complex musical ideas, and of the encyclopedic scope of librettist Peter Sellars ideas of subject matter to be explored in the medium of opera.
See also: Rising Stars: An Interview with Ryan McKinny and Guest Commentary by Ryan McKinny: Why We Need Parsifal.