Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

A Rush and a Push

November 25, 2017


Hye Jung Lee in Girls of the Golden West Photo: Cory Weaver 2017

John Adams’ latest opera, Girls of the Golden West with a libretto by his frequent collaborator, stage director Peter Sellars, has arrived in San Francisco. Make no mistake, it is a major event. One so demanding it requires time to sink in so that it brought me back to the opera house twice for performances before I could even get a real sense of how to approach it. Now that’s not to say it’s a great opera. It’s certainly not Adams’ best. But that being said, it is not to be ignored. It is filled with enough musical and ideological ambition to launch a thousand other much lesser works. Girls of the Golden West will undoubtedly ruffle many feathers. It is non-narrative and has little in the way of character development. It is neither dramatically urgent nor meditative. It is an opera of ideas – big ideas that rarely make it into opera and for that alone it is commendable. Adams was present at the premiere and was awarded with the San Francisco Opera Medal by the company in recognition of his long association with the company. In his remarks from the stage he noted that he now sees how prescient this opera is in light of the current political climate. Girls of the Golden West is a look inside the poisoned and dark events that are inextricably bound up in Californian and American history but are often excised or removed for the sake of a noble narrative of young men invading and dominating the brutal land of the west.

The manner in which Adams and Sellars go about achieving these goals involves using original source materials including the diaries of one Louise Clappe, a writer and pioneer of 19th-century California who recorded much about life during the Gold Rush. Her characterization in the opera, as Dame Shirley, is one of the three “girls” of the title who also include a Chinese-born prostitute named Ah Sing and a saloon worker by the name of Josefa Segovia. None of the their stories actually intertwine in any meaningful way, although each contributes to the didactic flow of the piece. Against their recasting of commonly misconstrued history is a narrator figure, Clarence, who provides the whitewashed narrative about the golden coast and the hardy, spirited men who immigrated here searching for fortune. Of course, it was a much bloodier affair with lynchings and racial strife not uncommon in other parts of the country at that time. The three women, and some of the men in their lives including the former slave Ned Peters, quickly run up against this blunt reality even in the newfound West. Much of this strife plays out in the dreamlike second Act which harkens to the final act of Nixon in China where the reality of scenario seems to evaporate in service to the larger project in a manner that is both heady and alluring.

But what the show lacks in dramatic tension, it more than makes up for with some of the most stirring music Adams has written. He is plumbing American popular song idioms of the late 19th century with abandon here including direct references ot Stephen Foster and others. The several male courses can often bite and seduce at the same time. The closing aria sung by Julia Bullock regarding the beautiful sunset sky of California descending into night is completely gripping and awe inspiring. Both J’Nai Bridges as Josefa and Davione Tines and Ned Peters deliver arias touching on the searing nature of racial and social injustice that could be sung at any time in American history. Girls of the Golden West can grab you by the throat and will without hesitation. All of this is beautifully held together by conductor Grant Gershon who led the work premiere in his continued ascendency as an important figure in the opera world. This complicated, often shifting score was well served in his hands. So while this new opera may not make everyone happy, it would certainly make them think. And form Adams and Sellars, that is more than enough reason to celebrate.

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