John Adams Seeks Gold With a California Opera

Jeff Kaliss on November 13, 2017
John Adams | Credit: Scott Wall/San Francisco Opera

You might expect composer John Adams to have been honored that major media made trips with him twice recently, up into the Sierra gold country. First it was The New York Times, in October, and then a PBS News Hour film crew, earlier this month.

“Everybody’s just dazzled,” says Adams, smiling gently during a chat in the press room of the San Francisco Opera. His comment refers not to his and Peter Sellars’s Girls of the Golden West, which will be premiering there later this month, but to the media’s reaction to the California mountains’ majesty, where the opera is set.

“You could see the look in their eyes when they arrived,” he continues. “It’s such an incredibly beautiful part of the country. And I know this area, I have a cabin up there. Since our kids were little babies, they’ve grown up there, and now my daughter — who scared a bear away when she was three weeks old — was up there just last Saturday, with her own 9-month-old. It’s something that just keeps passing through the generations.”

Despite his familiarity with the region of his second family home — his first is in Berkeley — Adams admits that, until working on the opera, he knew little about the Gold Rush which drew worldwide attention to the Sierra foothills in the middle of the 19th century, when the opera’s story takes place. Once Sellars, his longtime collaborator and the new opera’s librettist and director, had decided that “it was time for the great California opera to be written and I knew the guy who could write it,” Adams started reading Kenneth Starr’s histories of the state and delving, with Sellars, into rarer archival documents. “The stories were so rich in their interest, in what these people suffered,” Adams testifies. “They suffered incredible hardships just to get out here. Dame Shirley [the central female character in Girls, played by Julia Bullock] came out here with her husband and two sisters, one of whom died during the trip.”

Girls of the Golden West composer John Adams and librettist/director Peter Sellars | Credit: Scott Wall/San Francisco Opera

The opera collaborators’ research illuminated the stories not only of the miners but of minorities of all races “who were written out history,” in the composer’s words. “We have this character Ned [played by Davóne Tines] who’s a freed slave who’s come to California for the Gold Rush. And Ah Sing [Hye Jung Lee], a young Chinese girl who comes here, and the only employment she can find is being a prostitute. And Josefa [J’Nai Bridges] and Ramón [Elliott Madore], who are Mexicans. These are the people who were discriminated against. I composed most of this opera in 2016, a year in which it became fashionable, in our political realm, to bash Mexicans.”

The Hispanic material in the opera, says Adams, who’s already proven himself adept at and enamored of setting music to Spanish words, “comes from two sources. One is a Peruvian, Ramón Gil Navarro, who kept a journal of his experiences during the Gold Rush. Peter used a lot his text for our Ramón, a Mexican bartender and card shark. Another source is poetry by a woman named Alfonsina Storni, our only text not from the period; she lived in the early part of the 20th Century in Argentina.”

Adams doesn’t intend for these characters’ music to be heard as ethnomusicologically correct. By way of “funny” illustration, he refers to the opening scene of the opera’s Act II, “a celebration of the Fourth of July in this small gold mining town called Downieville, where I was just yesterday [on the North Fork of the Yuba River, in Sierra County]. As the characters are talking, the announcer says, ‘Now it’s time for dancing a fandango!’ I saw this in the libretto Peter had given me, and didn’t know what a fandango was, so I looked it up. And I still couldn’t figure it out. So I just wrote my own music, with a slightly Hispanic flair to it. But then I added to the libretto: I had Ramón say, after about three minutes of this, ‘This is not a fandango!’”

J'Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia in Girls of the Golden West | Credit: Kristen Loken

The character of the miner Joe (Paul Appleby) is “a composite that we created, in part from a Gold Rush song called ‘Joe Bowers,’ about a guy from Missouri who fell in love and wanted to get married, but his girlfriend says, ‘You have to go get rich in California first.’ We conflate him with a man whose real name was Joe Cannon, who harassed a woman in Downieville and was killed by her. Josefa was also a genuine historical personage.”

Adams found multiple sources for miners’ songs, “some of them online, I think it was from the California State Library in Sacramento. I looked at the Library of Congress online, to see what kind of music people in California were listening to in 1850, aside from the songs people would sing while they were working. It was what you would call ‘parlour music,’ mostly galops and ecossaises, not interesting music at all. And Peter bought, at a rare books store, an original pamphlet of texts. But [in the opera] the music itself came entirely from my imagination.”

The miners’ choruses, in the opinion of bass-baritone Davóne Tines, “are the most classic ‘John Adams,’ rhythmic sounds in a more stylized way. Act I, scene 4 is the first time you get to meet the miners, and it’s incredible. They’re singing a ‘doo-dah’ kind of song, but it’s like a wild burst of energy! And whenever the miners come on, it’s one character made of 30.”

Adams had previously stated, “for quite a bit of this opera, they’re not arias, they’re songs,” in which “the rhythm of the texts generated the music.” “You know, classical music people can get awfully wound up over terminology,” he adds. “Is this a rondo or not, is this a sonata or not. To me, there are certain moments [in Girls] that are operatic, and other moments that feel more like musical comedy. And I have a background in both of the forms.”

Expanding on this claim, he says, “It’s mostly that my mother was an amateur actress and singer; she probably could have been a professional, if she’d been encouraged when she was a kid. So all the time I was growing up [in Concord, New Hampshire], she was in local productions. And in one case, I was actually in South Pacific with her, as the little Polynesian boy.”

Ryan McKinny

For his cast, Adams’s connection with musical theater is manifest in what Tines calls “this extreme naturalism, the naturalness of American speech.” This approach is ramified by the libretto of Sellars, who “cares very deeply about humanity, and wants to portray human experiences on the stage,” according to bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who plays the miner Clarence in Girls. McKinny has worked with Sellars on non-Adams operas, and sang the title role in Adams’s Nixon in China last year. (“I hadn’t found a new generation Nixon [before McKinny],” Adams said, “he was just terrific.” McKinny will also sing the title role in Doctor Atomic next summer, in Santa Fe.)

“What makes Peter really special is his heart and his way of getting to the kernel in each character and in the story.” Clarence, notes McKinny, “represents what you might call the European-Americans, or white people, that have a lot of pride in what they’ve built, and a lot of ambition in how it’s going to go, but they also create a lot of havoc. Clarence is kind of aware of his wrongdoings, and society’s ills, but doesn’t really do anything about it, or can’t. And that conflict is the center of his character.”

To better connect himself with his character, McKinny made a backpacking trip a few weeks ago into the Sierra foothills, where he discovered for himself what has long been an inspiration for Adams. “I felt the massiveness of it, how far it’s in the middle of nowhere. I understood better how these people had come to somewhere so far away from their normal lives, and I think that had an impact on how they dealt with stuff. As I play Clarence, he becomes more aware of this vastness, throughout the piece. In the beginning, he’s proud of that, but then he realizes how destructive things are, and how much bigger this landscape is than he is.”

Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley in John Adams’s Girls of the Golden West | Credit: Kristen Loken/San Francisco Opera

McKinny sees many of the opera’s themes as timely. “These are things we’re still grappling with: destruction of the environment, racism, societies that are driven by a lot of violence.” Adams says that, early in the compositional process, he “saw resonances between the Gold Rush’s extreme, hectic urge for instant wealth and what’s going on in Silicon Valley right now, where there are companies that don’t really manufacture anything or feed people, they’re just companies that connect people and they’re valued in the billions of dollars. And maybe tomorrow they’ll have no value whatsoever.”

As in others of Adams’s and Sellars’s pieces, there are also purposeful depictions of women taking matters into their own hands. They include the gritty Dame Shirley, the fiery Josefa, and the prostitute Ah Sing, who, Adams notes, “is proud that she’s been very successful at what she does [as a prostitute], and wants to get rich, so that she can buy her own farm.”

The very special symbiosis between Adams and Sellars has impressed their cast. Sellars artfully channeled Frederick Douglass’s 1852 speech, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?” through the character of Ned at the conclusion of Act II, but Tines points out that the impact of the scene “is also John’s amazing, pulsing, multilayered textures. The general style of the aria is sort of like a Baroque overture, with extremely dotted rhythms. It’s an event for the orchestra and for me.”

Girls of the Golden West rehearsal | Credit: Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera

Because the composer and librettist/director have collaborated for three decades, “they understand each other so well,” says McKinny, “that Peter can find things in John’s music that John didn’t necessarily do on purpose, but are there and have dramatic impulse. Also, Peter trusts John. In building a libretto, he doesn’t put any stage directions in, because he doesn’t want to give John any idea about what might happen on stage. He wants him to just feel what he thinks is right for the sound of the scene. And then Peter will work off that, to find out what might happen onstage. It’s a really cool back-and-forth. John’s at all the staging rehearsals, and Peter’s at all the music rehearsals, and they’re always going back and forth about how to shape the moment.”

Girls of the Golden West rehearsal with conductor Grant Gershon and composer John Adams. Baritone Elliot Madore (Ramón) is on stage. | Credit: Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera

During those rehearsals, Adams has come to realize that his music can be as complex as it is affecting. He reports his impressions of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra dealing with the opening of Girls. “When I was composing it, it didn’t seem that difficult at all, but now I realized there are all these syncopated voices that have to be locked in.” He was impressed with his young singers’ ability to grapple with their parts. “My music is rhythmically very complicated, but they walked into the first rehearsal, and not a single one of them had a rhythmic slip.

“I couldn’t say that 25 years ago, “Adams continues, “when many singers had wonderful voices but, with the exception of someone like Dawn Upshaw, that kind of basic musicianship simply wasn’t taught to singers.” Why the improvement? “Maybe they’ve been going to school and studying some Elliott Carter. And I’m old enough [at 70] to be able to say they probably know my music; they’ve grown up listening to me.”

This doesn’t mean that Girls will be assured of a secure passage past its premiere and into the future, though it will receive performances in Dallas and Amsterdam. “I’m viewed as a success; I’ve been very lucky with Nixon in China, and both Klinghoffer and Doctor Atomic have been done quite a bit in Europe,” Adams says, noting that Julia Bullock will be heard on a London recording of Doctor Atomic, to be released by Nonesuch next spring. “But from my point of view, I’m keenly aware of what an uphill battle it is to get my work done. And you don’t really develop an American tradition of opera unless people care enough to keep on doing your works.”

Beyond the debut of the opera, Adams looks toward a deeper and longer placement for his creation. “Several companies in Europe that know about me and Peter and were very interested in this opera thought that the story was a little too local,” he grins. “Well, that’s what we love about Janáček, that’s what we love about Peter Grimes, that’s what we love about Boris Godunov: it’s that flavor of a place and a time. And if you’re a creative artist with depth, you’ll write something that has that special local flavor, and yet speaks universally.”