John Adams introduces his new opera set in the 1850s California Gold Rush, premiered in San Francisco in November.
Where did the idea and inspiration for the new stagework come from?
Peter Sellars and I had been kicking around ideas for a new opera and coming up dry. Then he proposed a ‘Fanciulla del West’ with real sourced stories, authentic texts and historical characters in place of the romantic fluff of the Belasco libretto. Naturally I liked the idea, because the California Gold Rush is very close to home for me. I knew the background history and I knew the exact terrain where it all happened as I’ve had a cabin in the Californian Sierras for 40 years. The subject also seemed to chime with what is now going on in our country, socially and politically.
You’re known for your operas that address very contemporary issues, so is this older historical subject something new?
On one hand it will look and probably sound more ‘historical’ than, for instance, Doctor Atomic or Nixon in China. David Gropman’s sets are wonderfully evocative of 1852, and the original Gold Rush song texts that I’ve set will certainly add a ‘period’ feel to the music. But the truth of the matter is, the Gold Rush was rife with the same kind of social and political conflicts that we’re experiencing right now – nativism, racism, opportunistic greed and environmental degradation. That makes the opera sound awfully grim! In fact our stories are socially pointed AND at the same time very entertaining.
Were there many women active during the Gold Rush?
In fact no – there were very few and they lived extremely hard lives. It takes a stretch of the imagination to understand how crude and miserable it had to be for a woman to survive in a tent through a mountain winter with only onions and potatoes to eat, no conveniences like plumbing or medical care, with no legitimate law and order, and with drunken, often violent men threatening unpredictable behaviour. These women had to be incredibly brave and determined.
Are your ‘girls’ of the Gold Rush real or invented people?
They are definitely real people. Louise Clappe, born in Massachusetts, married a young physician and came to San Francisco with him in 1850. They ended up in a tiny camp in the Sierras where he was a doctor and also tried to dig gold (unsuccessfully) and she, using the pen-name ‘Dame Shirley’, wrote a series of marvellously descriptive letters over a period of eighteen months. She witnessed just about everything you could imagine, and her writing is so vivid and witty that I could set it to music without altering barely a word. Another woman, Josefa Segovia, was a young Mexican who worked in a hotel bar in the village of Downieville, just a few miles from where my cabin is located. She was harassed on the night of July 4th 1851 by a drunken white miner. She fought back, stabbing and killing him and was summarily tried and hanged the next day. That event is the culminating moment in Act II.
And you have the famous Lola Montez – how is it that this former consort of King Ludwig of Bavaria appears in California?
Lola Montez had to flee Europe or else be arrested and put in jail, so brought her travelling act, including her infamous ‘Spider Dance’, to the US and ended up performing in Gold Rush California. I couldn’t resist the idea of inserting a little ‘scena’ in which Lola does her Spider Dance. I guess it will be my Yankee version of Salome’s ‘Seven Veils’, only without the severed head.
Can you give us a hint of how the music will compare with your other stage works?
I never really know the effect my music is going to have until I hear it performed by real voices and instruments. I guess it will be a surprise in some ways, especially because I’ve composed quite a bit of it to the texts of original Gold Rush songs. These songs are all rather droll in their content and usually tell pathetic stories of misery, broken dreams or broken bodies. But they also have a wonderfully self-mocking and unsentimental quality that I’ve tried to answer with my music. And I think that, rather than having a ‘librettist’ come in and make up the story and the words, it’s far more genuine – and certainly far more enjoyable – to have the real texts as people spoke and sang them.
Do you integrate music from the 1850s with your own idiom?
I looked at whatever available music from the Gold Rush era I could find, and I found it all very bland. Most of it was in the form of parlour music – dance music such as gallops, ecossaises, etc – none of which had the kind of zing and sassiness of the written texts. The music of that era and that location was very primitive and derivative and I didn’t think it would be interesting to try to incorporate it. But instead I think I invented a kind of punchy music that matches the people and the way they spoke and acted.
It must be a pleasure to compose a stage work that originates in the California which you’ve adopted and obviously love.
Indeed! Over the past two years, as I’ve worked on the opera, I’ve been aware of how many social and historical parallels exist between the get-rich-quick mood of the Gold Rush and our current mad obsession with wealth and material acquisition. The premiere in San Francisco will take place only a few miles from Silicon Valley, where extravagant fortunes and hyperbolic overvaluation are a way of life.
Interviewed by David Allenby, 2017
Girls of the Golden West (2015-17) 145’
Opera in two acts
Libretto compiled from original sources by Peter Sellars
Commissioned by San Francisco Opera, The Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera
21 November 2017 (world premiere)
24/26/29 November, 2/5/7/10 December
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco
Director: Peter Sellars
Conductor: Grant Gershon
Photo: Vern Evans
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