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SF Opera’s ‘Girls of the Golden West’ is about the real Gold Rush

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San Francisco Opera’s cast and crew rehearse “Girls of the Golden West,” a show set during the Gold Rush. (Stefan Cohen/San Francisco Opera)
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San Francisco Opera’s long record of staging works by John Adams — including “Nixon in China,” “The Death of Klinghoffer” and “Doctor Atomic” — grows longer Nov. 21, when the company presents the world premiere of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bay Area composer’s “Girls of the Golden West.”

Unlike its Italian namesake, Puccini’s “La Fanciulla del West” (“Girl of the Golden West”), a romanticized version of the Gold Rush, Adams’ two-act “Girls” is an historically accurate account of the diversity of California mining camps in the early 1850s.

“I’ve had a very strong connection to the geography,” Adams says. “I have a bungalow only a few miles from where the events of this opera take place. The opportunity to compose a work based on the location I’m very familiar with has been a special experience. And I’ve been so fascinated by the history of California and that we are a thoroughly multicultural state.”

San Francisco Opera’s premiere of Bay Area composer John Adams’ “Girls of the Golden West” opens Nov. 21. (Courtesy Scott Wall/San Francisco Opera)

“Girls of the Golden West” marks another collaboration between Adams and director-librettist Peter Sellars, who drew material from “The Shirley Letters,” a breezy set of 23 letters by Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe depicting the colorful, though often brutal, socio-economic landscape of the camps.

Clappe, East Coast-born and educated, arrived in California in September 1851 with her husband, a doctor, who tended the miners. Known as Dame Shirley, she was one of a handful of women who braved the rough-and-tumble life of the camps; unlike the opera’s other “girls” — Chinese prostitute Ah Sing and the Mexican tavern worker Josefa — Dame Shirley’s status as an upper-class white woman spared her much of the insults, sexism and abuse the others suffered.

“Dame Shirley was trying to give the clearest, most accurate account of the mining camps,” says soprano Julia Bullock, who portrays her in the opera. “Her descriptive language was wonderful, she seemed like a very honest individual, and she honored all the people who were there, while also being critical of the things that were not handled well, and for that I respect her very much. But she was in a protected kind of environment to safely view all of the complexities of what was going on at the mining camps.”

Despite its name, the opera’s setting is a white man’s world. Its male characters of color, Mexican tavern worker Ramón and recently freed slave Ned Peters, the wagon driver who brings Dame Shirley to the camp, called Rich Bar, are barely better off than their female counterparts.

“We meet Ned as a wily, spunky character who begins as a hustler and stagecoach driver, but by the end, he’s standing in a tuxedo atop a tall tree stump proclaiming the words of Frederick Douglass, and the journey of that character is very appealing to me,” says bass-baritone Davóne Tines, who portrays Ned.

The racism and mistreatment faced by Ned and the opera’s other minority characters bear remarkable resemblance to what people of color still endure in America.

“It’s been astounding to see the stark parallels between our current time and the Gold Rush,” Tines says. “There are analogous situations for every part of the story, including a mob of miners who come to find people of color they want to expel from the camps, which has a direct correlation to police sweeps in American cities of today.”

IF YOU GO
Girls of the Golden West
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Nov. 21, Nov. 24, Nov. 29, Dec. 2, Dec. 5 and Dec. 7; 2 p.m. Nov. 26 and Dec. 10
Tickets: $26 to $398
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.com

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