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A Musical Gold Rush at the San Francisco Opera

John Adams and Peter Sellars explore racism, nativism, avarice, and song.

Read more from the Fall Arts Preview from our September 2017 issue here

Composer John Adams and his longtime artistic collaborator, director and librettist Peter Sellars, are nothing if not eclectic. The duo have collaborated on operas covering subject matter ranging from the Israeli-Palestinian crisis (The Death of Klinghoffer) to A-bomb father Robert Oppenheimer (Dr. Atomic) to Nixonian diplomacy (Nixon in China). Now, with Girls of the Golden West, which will receive its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera on November 21, the celebrated composer is tackling a subject that has perhaps the most deeply personal resonance of any in his career: the California gold rush.

Although Adams was born in Massachusetts, the composer, who won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize in music for On the Transmigration of Souls, has lived in California since 1971 and has such a passionate connection to the Golden State that Sellars laughingly calls him “the original born-again Californian.” Adams and his wife own a cabin between Downieville and Sierraville in the Tahoe National Forest, as well as a 40-acre place on the Sonoma-Mendocino border. “I have a deep love of the land,” the thoughtful, good-natured composer says in an interview at his Berkeley home.

Through his long association with Downieville, Adams learned about an appalling incident that took place there in 1851 and that forms the climax of his new opera: the lynching by a white mob of a Mexican woman who had stabbed a miner to death under murky circumstances, the only lynching of a woman in California history. The horrific episode not only provided Adams and Sellars with an operatic crescendo, but also allowed them to shine a light on the dark underside of the gold rush.

Ironically, what inspired the duo to create an unflinchingly revisionist opera about the gold rush was a melodramatic potboiler about the same subject. Sellars had been asked by Milan’s legendary opera company La Scala to stage Puccini’s The Girl of the Golden West (La fanciulla del west). The plot of that work (which has nothing to do with the lynching or anything else in the new opera) is ridiculously clichéd—“The main sound that you’re hearing is the twirling of a mustache,” Sellars says—but in the course of researching the gold rush, he fell in love with its quintessentially American stories. For Adams, who’d already composed several works on California themes, the chance to create an opera dealing with the crucial formative period of his beloved adopted state was irresistible.

Sellars was astonished at the richness of the material provided by the gold rush. “It’s what you’re always looking for in drama,” the effusive, peripatetic writer-director says by telephone from Salzburg, Austria, where he is directing Mozart’s La clemenza di Tito for the Salzburg Festival. “California set up a series of conditions that were very intense. The stakes were so high—getting rich quick or being ruined. The highs and lows go to that Greek-tragedy place. And when you test the character of a human soul in those conditions, the stuff you come up with is, forgive the expression, pure gold.”

After their usual initial period of intense collaboration, during which Sellars inundated Adams with material (“as a librettist, my only assignment is to give John the text that inspires great music”), the two men ended up basing their opera on three texts. The first was The Shirley Letters, dispatches from a gold rush camp written by a New England woman to her sister, which Adams considers “among the great American literature of the 19th century—as good as anything by Whitman or Melville.” The second was the historical accounts of the Downieville lynching. The third was the gold rush diary of a Mexican miner named Ramon Gil Navarro.

Just as important are contemporaneous gold rush songs the men unearthed, for whose rollicking, heartbreaking lyrics Adams composed original music. In their humanity, the songs provide a counterpoint to the opera’s uglier themes of racism, nativism, and greed. “What’s wonderful about these gold rush songs is that they display a wonderfully self-effacing sense of humor,” Adams says. “We wanted to show both sides.”

The nature of the material required Adams to write music that was both simple and direct. “These are straightforward people. Dame Shirley describes eating dinner with an iron spoon,” he says. “I can’t write about these people with very fancy, florid music. It has to be music that has the same kind of directness and combination of humor and violence. I don’t even consider the big solo numbers arias. I consider them songs.”

Asked how he and Adams met the challenge of creating a work that reflects such a kaleidoscopic range of human experiences, Sellars replies with a laugh, “That’s why they call it opera! It is that kaleidoscope. No other art form gives you that incredible range, where you can put things literally cheek by jowl, right up against each other. Opera flourishes in the contrast, the shocking juxtaposition.”

For Adams, whose 70th birthday this year is being celebrated with musical events around the world, working on this piece was deeply fulfilling both as a composer and as a Californian. “As you get older, you become more conscious of the history of where you live,” he says. “It’s a very emotional thing. I find it hard to even describe how precious it is to me, the knowledge and the memory of what came before.”


Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco

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