NEW YORK (AP) — Move over Puccini, and make way for the Girls.
A new opera by American composer John Adams aims to tell the true story of California's Gold Rush, capturing the excitement but also the greed, brutality and racism that followed the quest for instant riches as prospectors from all over the world flocked to the Sierra Nevada in the early 1850s.
Premiering at the San Francisco Opera on Nov. 21, the work is titled "Girls of the Golden West," a twist on Puccini's 1910 opera, "Girl of the Golden West" ("La Fanciulla del West" in the original Italian), which offered a heavily romanticized view of the period.
As usual with Adams in recent years, his collaborator is Peter Sellars, who created the libretto entirely from original sources — letters, diaries, songs and speeches — and also will direct.
The "Girls" are three women of diverse backgrounds, two of them actual historical figures. One is Louise Clappe (sung by soprano Julia Bullock), an Easterner who moved to California with her doctor-husband and documented life in the mining camps in a series of letters under the pseudonym Dame Shirley. Those letters form the backbone of Sellars' libretto.
The second historical character is a Mexican-American woman named Josefa (mezzo J'Nai Bridges), who was hanged in Downieville in 1851. The third Girl is a composite, a Chinese prostitute given the name Ah Sing (coloratura Hye Jung Lee). Others in the cast include tenor Paul Groves and baritone Ryan McKinny as miners. Grant Gershon will conduct.
The Associated Press sat down with Adams and Sellars recently to discuss the project. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Associated Press: Your previous operas have tended to deal with more recent events: 'Nixon in China,' 'The Death of Klinghoffer' and 'Doctor Atomic' (the first two had librettos by Alice Goodman). What attracted you to a subject further back in American history?
Sellars: La Scala had asked me to make my debut directing Puccini's 'Girl of the Golden West.' ... Now anybody who knows me would not call and ask me to do that, but I did the research ... and that libretto is pure popcorn. So I said to John, 'Let's have the great American opera about California.'
Adams: I have very strong feelings about California. I've lived there for over 40 years, and I have this shack high up in Sierra mountains. ... I like the idea of an updated work which tells the story through the voices of the real people with our contemporary consciousness of what really went on during that time. ... Much of the opera is upbeat, kind of funny and entertaining, and it's only as it goes along that we suddenly feel events getting out of control.
Sellars: Which I think is what the Gold Rush felt like. At the beginning spirits are high and every day your luck could change any minute, and then two years into it things got tougher and it winds up a bit like Silicon Valley, where some people are going to be very rich and other people are going to be nothing.
AP: Why choose a title that so closely mimics Puccini's opera? Is it an implied critique of his work?
Adams: I have no intention of some sophomoric snarkiness. Nobody's ever going to accuse me of competing with Puccini for writing melodies. ... I'm going to tell you something and I'm not being coy. I actually don't know the Puccini opera. I looked at about 10 minutes of it on YouTube, and it just wasn't my cup of tea. It seems like a perfectly respectable period piece in the same way as Jack London. I think our opera is a lovely counterpoint.
Sellars: Puccini, of course, was a million miles away, not at all on location, so he was writing with images from silent movies ... and the research just called forth a whole other set of stories. The minute you go inside under the skin of the characters there's some pretty amazing skin to go underneath.
AP: What is the advantage of relying entirely on original sources rather than creating your own words? And how do you create dialogue between characters?
Sellars: I think it's like film right now where everybody can feel that energy is in documentary, and what's interesting is this docu-fiction where people sit on this edge between what happened and what the power of art can bring to that. ... That sense of, this is our history ... and not just a take on it but this is actually our history. People did say that. Somebody did that. As for dialogue, it's like cutting film. You just start cutting inside the material and the more you cut away then the more space becomes available and then you start doing some weaving and eventually there's some heat. It's like that thing where you say, I wonder what would have happened if this person had met that person? ... For me the pleasure is to imagine what if they had a conversation, what would that be like?
AP: What difficulties does this kind of libretto pose for the composer?
Adams: There are parts that just flowed beautifully, and there were other parts that Peter gave me that were intensely important but they just had no musicality. Peter doesn't like to touch; he's like an anthropologist, he absolutely doesn't want to have any fingerprints on it. And I've had to become like a Soviet hack and had to go in and change some texts to make it singable. You know you're writing along ... you come to a word that's the end of a phrase, but if it's a word that has 'th' in it or 'ps' and the singer can't make a beautiful sound on it, then you have to find another word.
Sellars: Every composer changes the text to fit the musical line, and I can't anticipate what John's musical intentions are going to be. So I always give John extra material so the cloth is cut very generously, so his musical argument can take him whichever way it takes him, there'll be a place for him to go so there's a bunch of stuff to throw overboard.
AP: The climax of the opera is the horrifying scene in which Josefa is hanged after being found guilty of killing Joe, the miner who tried to assault her. How did you handle this?
Adams: Joe appears nasty drunk — and he always speaks these Gold Rush lyrics. He never says anything that isn't the text from a mining song. But there are people like that, you know, 'Oh god, here he comes again and I'm going to hear that story.' And she defends herself and stabs him. She's tried, she's condemned to death and she addresses the community and says, 'You want me pure, to fit the typecast you want, subservient, obedient Hispanic female, but I'm not,' and as she's saying that the miners take her and push her toward the gallows and they're singing this terrible mocking song about 'I've Got a Little Black Senorita' ... and again, these are straight out of Gold Rush lyrics. The songs are also self-abasing, one of them is called 'The Lousy Miner,' and there's a sense of self-loathing amongst the men but they're still going ahead with this strange, violent, erotic act, and at the very last moment there's a sudden freeze. The music stops. And I imagine her turning around and just looking at everyone, and for a couple of seconds they are shocked into total silence, and then they break out again. According to the reports ... at the last she moment took the noose, put it around her own neck and jumped off. ... I meant it to be a very disturbing moment.