In what promises to be a stunning finale to its Fall Season, San Francisco Opera presents the world premiere of John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West – a dramatic and moving portrayal of life on the frontier of the California Gold Rush. It’s a fitting finale to Adams’ 70th birthday year in which performances of his works have been taking place in concert halls and opera houses around the world.
Girls of the Golden West was created by John Adams for San Francisco Opera at the instigation of former General Director David Gockley, and is a co-commission and co-production with Dallas Opera and the Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam.
The opera is set in an interesting phase in the history of California which, as Adams says, “….. brought out the very best and the very worst of human traits, from scenes of ugly nativist racism and casual violence to examples of nobility, generosity and ingenuity”.
This portrayal has been vividly captured by librettist and director Peter Sellars from a number of sources, one of which was The Shirley Letters – a true series of events chronicled by a doctor’s wife, Louise Clappe, who for a time lived in a remote northern California mining camp, and who wrote under the pen name of Dame Shirley. Other sources were the diary of Chilean miner Ramón Gil Navarro, memoirs of fugitive slaves, poems written by Chinese immigrants (Songs of Gold Mountain), the Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, a speech by Frederick Douglass, songs of the gold miners; a speech by Frederick Douglass, biographies of Lola Montez, the works of 19th-century California historians Hubert Howe Bancroft and Josiah Royce, and Mark Twain’s semi-autobiographical book, Roughing It, written when he traveled around the frontier area during the 1860s.
Girls of the Golden West features the San Francisco Opera debuts of three operatic artists – Julia Bullock, Ryan McKinny and Davóne Tines, as well as that of conductor Grant Gershon – artistic director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and an acclaimed interpreter of the works of John Adams.
The role of Dame Shirley is taken by Julia Bullock, praised for her “velvety soprano” (The Times), her “glorious mellow sheen” (Musical America) and her “purity and sweetness of tone” (Financial Times). Ms Bullock is acclaimed for her performances in other works by John Adams, and by contemporary composers Kaija Saariaho and Tyshawn Sorey.
Base-baritone Ryan McKinny – who appears as Clarence, a hard-luck miner – has been described as “One of the finest singers of his generation” by Opera News. He recently appeared with the San Francisco Symphony in Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles in the season-opening celebration of the Bernstein Centennial.
Davóne Tines takes the role of Ned Peters, an African-American cowboy and fugitive slave drawn to the frontier by the lure of wealth. Described by the Los Angeles Times as “the buzz of California’s opera world”, Davóne Tines is also said by composer and conductor Matthew Aucoin to have a “…. voice of enviable lushness and uncanny power”. Mr Tines is scheduled to appear in John Adams’ opera-oratorio El Niño next month, with Grant Gershon and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Tenor Paul Appleby is Joe Cannon, the miner whose love for Mexican barmaid Josefa Segovia causes a crisis in the camp. Mr Appleby’s recent performance in Béatrice et Bénédict at Glyndebourne prompted BBC Music Magazine Opera Choice to describe him as “…. a handsome presence and a handsome voice”, and in a 2016 production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, The New York Times wrote that he had made “the hapless role of Don Ottavio a thing of tenorial beauty”. Mr Appleby last appeared with San Francisco Opera in 2015, as Tamino in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
The role of Josefa Segovia is sung by mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges, described by Concerto.net as “Vocally gifted with effusive, smoky substance …. softness and soulfulness”. She made her San Francisco Opera debut last season as Bersi in Giordano’s Andrea Chénier, a role which she has also performed at Bayerische Staatsoper, which drew praise from Opera News.
Korean soprano Hye Jung Lee takes the role of Ah Sing, the Chinese prostitute who’s in love with Joe. She has previously appeared with San Francisco Opera as Madame Mao Tse-tung in Adams’ Nixon in China in 2012, and as Olympia in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann in 2013. The New York Times describes her as “striking” with a “sweet and focused” sound.
Elliot Madore sings the role of Ramón, the Chilean bartender of the Empire Hotel, who last appeared with San Francisco Opera as Anthony Hope in the Company premiere of Sweeney Todd. La Scena Musicale has written of his “… lovely lyric baritone with a recognizable timbre …. capable of both power and nuance, with an impressive range”.
Lorena Feijóo, former principal dancer with San Francisco Ballet, takes the role of Lola Montez, the celebrity and entertainer who was well known in the mining area for her provocative Spider Dance.
Peter Sellars’ creative team – drawn from the worlds of opera, theater and cinema – includes set designer David Gropman (Fences, Life of Pi, Hairspray), costume designer Rita Ryack (How the Grinch Stole Christmas, A Beautiful Mind and the music video for Michael Jackson’s Bad), lighting designer James F Ingalls, sound designer Mark Grey and choreographer John Heginbotham.
Grant Gershon leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Chorus and Dance Corps in eight performances of Girls of the Golden West at the War Memorial Opera House, from November 21st to December 10. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website.
Sources of information:
San Francisco Opera program notes