Over the last three decades or so of attending performances, I always lean forward with anticipation at the prospect of a new composition. The times being what they are, I know I’ll probably be disappointed, perhaps even repulsed, but there is always a chance that something remarkable may happen. It was with just such mixed anticipation that I recently settled into my seat at the San Francisco Opera for the fourth and latest John Adams opera, Girls of the Golden West. It’s rare that one gets an opportunity to attend the world premiere run of an opera. In fact, such premieres draw opera fans and critics from all over the world.
Opera, which combines the orchestral music of a symphony, the finest singers, and the full stage production of a play, is an expensive—even extravagant—art form. Perhaps as a result, the opera world is rather conservative in its productions choices. A handful of particularly beloved and audience-tested operas make up a disproportionate share of any year’s performances.
Most operas are built upon eternal verities of human passion: love, war, lust, hatred, revenge, jealousy, murder, betrayal. As America’s resident celebrity composer, John Adams has instead attracted publicity by choosing subjects that are as fresh as the morning headlines. Starting with the Cold War (1987’s Nixon in China), moving on to the Arab-Israeli conflict (1991’s Death of Klinghoffer), and more recently covering nuclear weaponry and the Manhattan Project (2005’s Doctor Atomic), Adams trades in trendiness. His operas have all debuted during Republican presidential administrations. And such is the curious power of the “Trump effect” that Adams, joined at the hip with his long-time pointy-haired collaborator (director and librettist Peter Sellars), didn’t even wait for the 2016 primary season to end before commencing work on Girls of the Golden West, set in the California Gold Rush of the early 1850s.
With this latest addition to the Adams/Sellars repertoire, an opera has managed to arrive at peak identity politics. The first of the three “girls” (a rather demeaning moniker, upon reflection) is the narrator, “Dame Shirley,” the pen name of a historical figure whose published dispatches from the California gold fields make up the bulk of the text of the libretto. The second is a noble Chinese prostitute (Ah Sing), who gives her heart to a white man but lives to regret it. The third is Josefa (also based on a historical figure), a Mexican woman of indeterminate occupation. The latter is surprisingly unlikeable, given that she is destined to be the tragic victim of the piece, lynched by an angry mob of white miners for having killed a drunken, broke, and deplorable white bloke (Joe), who takes out his bitter frustrations by clinging to her in the form of an attempted rape.
One villain isn’t enough, though, and the second (Clarence) is of course also a white male. As an acidic SF Chronicle review of the opening performance put it, the two white guys are only to be distinguished from each other by one being “slightly more drunken and menacing than the other.” The heroic male characters, by contrast, are a black cowboy chef (I’m really not making this up) named Ned—and a noble Latino named Ramón who mainly distinguishes himself by being tied helplessly to a chair by the above-mentioned white males as his lover Josefa is dragged off to be raped.
Not content to rest on such laurels, the opera’s checklist includes yet more racial violence, environmental destruction symbolized by the giant stump of a severed Sequoia (never mind that the original stump, now a tourist attraction, is four hours away by car from where the operatic action takes place), greedy capitalists, and the genocide of Native Americans.
Dramatically, the whole mess couldn’t be clumsier. Characters are introduced and then the narrative moves on before one has a chance to get attached. Thus, when bad things start happening to them, there is none of the usual prickle of horror running through the audience that happens during even the most improbable of tragic operatic moments. It really isn’t that hard, given three hours and a captive audience, to elicit emotional investment in even the most ridiculous nonsense—just ask Oliver Stone. Yet Adams and Sellars couldn’t muster it, even in front of a San Francisco crowd that should be among the most susceptible on the planet.
At his best, Adams as a composer can produce short but striking symphonic works that use pulsating, insistent rhythms. His music explores interesting edges of orchestral texture while remaining more accessible than is most intentionally obscure modernist music. Still, even in his watered-down style, the ghoul of alienating atonality seems to skulk in the shadows of every phrase of this opera. His melodies, rather than taking shape, sound as if they could be produced by a random note generator.
Adams promised that this time he had written things “you can actually sing,” particularly in his settings of old miner songs that Sellars collected and included in the libretto. I must confess that in one case he did deliver. There is one “tune,” sung manfully and repeatedly by the miner’s chorus, that I’ve not been able to get out of my brain. Up and down, down and up, between the same two notes of a minor third—a perpetual-motion torture machine from the third circle of minimalist musical hell.
Sadly, Adams again proves that his musical idiom may not be up to the task of sustaining an opera. Some months ago I was chatting with a pair of opera buffs, discussing the upcoming seasons. I mentioned that I would be attending the new Adams opera. They chuckled and noted that they themselves were part of an elite circle: They had left early from Nixon in China not once, not twice, but three times. I recalled this conversation when I stepped out during the intermission to fortify myself with a much-needed dose of wine (served in a compostable cup, this being San Francisco) and the tails of my jacket were repeatedly lifted by breezes caused by patrons dashing for the exits. As the lights dimmed for the second act, I was surrounded by rows of half-empty seats.
Sellars says he got the idea for Girls of the Golden West from a Puccini opera of nearly the same name, also set in the California Gold Rush: La fanciulla del West. He also notes that the “second California Gold Rush”—Silicon Valley style—is occurring here in the Bay Area, telling the audience in a pre-performance talk that this is really “an opera about today.” Labeling the Puccini opera “pure popcorn,” Sellars has boasted that “reality is more interesting than fantasy”—thus implying, it seems, that he and Adams planned to set things straight. Ironically, in addition to the stunning artistic failure of this opera, Sellars and Adams even get the “today” part of things dreadfully wrong. The primary victim of this explosion of Bay Area hyperwealth has been a vanishing middle class, an endangered species that once roamed the state of California in vast herds.
You’d never know this when watching Girls of the Golden West. In the Adams/Sellars fantasy world, white rednecks drinking from red Solo cups somehow magically rule the world while oppressing everyone in sight for the sheer dastardly pleasure of it. Reality, it seems, will have to await more able chroniclers.
Bradley Anderson writes from San Francisco, California.