Scene 1: On the road to the Sierras.
Clarence evokes the “driving, vigorous, restless population” of young men who have come to the gold country: “the most gallant host that ever trooped down the startled solitudes of an unpeopled land.”
Louise Clappe, who calls herself “Dame Shirley,” on her way with her husband to Rich Bar, describes both the pleasures and annoyances of living in the crude conditions of Gold Rush California. She falls off her mule, gets up, brushes herself off, and continues on, undaunted. She is always able to laugh at herself.
She transfers to “the most excruciating springless wagon that as ever my lot to be victimized in,” and meets Ned, her driver and recently freed slave. Ned sings a song about being a wagon driver, fighting Indians, and other jobs he’s held, but he also alludes to the many times he’s been routinely cheated because he is a Black man.
Scene 2: Rich Bar, Plumas County in the Sierras
In the bar of the rickety Empire Hotel, Joe Cannon is entertaining his pals with a coarse ballad about how his girl back in Missouri has cheated on him and had a baby by another man. Ah Sing and Josefa watch all this from a distance. Joe takes a fancy to Ah Sing and plays up to her in the only way he knows how—by singing another song. She is proud of being an expert in her profession, but she is nonetheless looking for a husband and a means of rising above her situation. Joe might be the one.
They go upstairs to her room, he makes furtive love, but then suddenly bolts, leaving her alone and despondent. “He has taken his pleasure. And thinks no more of me.”
Dame Shirley expresses her compassion for “these girls, unhappy members of a class” who are forced into prostitution. “They travel from town to town, and never stay long.”
Scene 3: Late night at the Empire Hotel
The men sing a rowdy, high-energy song: “A gambler’s life I do admire.”
Josefa works the tables, expertly flirting with the men. Ramón while dealing at the gambling table, describes the realities of running a hotel and the need to always have a girl on hand: “She is there to attract the crowd. Without a girl there can be no hotel, without a beautiful one there can be no business.” None of the miners is aware that he and Josefa are a couple.
Joe, sloppy drunk again, harasses Josefa, but she evades his clumsy advances (“Little man, let your canary go!”)
The bar room clears out, leaving Ramón and Josefa alone. They sing a quiet duet recalling their first love encounter.
Scene 4: Dame Shirley's cabin
Joe and Clarence sing of the glories of male bonding (“Give me a man that’s all a man, who stands up straight and strong...”).
Ned, frightened by rumors of violence against “foreigners,” takes refuge in Dame Shirley’s cabin. She is alone, her husband out tending to an injured Mexican who had been set upon by white miners. Ned confides in her his secret that he is an escaped slave. They watch as a funeral procession go by. In a quiet soliloquy he states his philosophy of life.
Their moment of relative intimacy is suddenly interrupted by Joe, Clarence, and a mob of angry miners. One of their men has been found murdered by Indians and Joe is enthusiastically enlisting anyone who wants to join him in a massacre. They will even be paid for their work.
Downieville, California, Fourth of July
Scene 1: The Raven himself
The Independence Day celebrations include an amateur performance of scenes from Shakespeare. Dame Shirley stuns everyone with a blistering impersonation Lady Macbeth (“The raven himself is hoarse at the fatal entrance of Duncan…”)
The miners answer Dame Shirley’s virtuoso aria with a high-spirited song in praise of California (“There is no land upon the earth contains the same amount of worth...”).
Scene 2: The Ballad of Ah Sing
The celebratory mood is shattered by the sound of men screaming. Mexicans and Chileans are being hunted down, robbed, and beaten by the white miners.
Ignoring the commotion, Clarence, as master of ceremonies, leads Ah Sing onto the improvised stage. She sings “The Ballad of Ah Sing,” about her coming to America in hope for a better life. The crowd reacts with jeering and by throwing firecrackers and vegetables at the stage. Joe, now smitten by Ah Sing’s beauty, is genuinely in love with her—at least for the moment. He mounts the stage in her defense and sings how irresistible he finds her (“This gorgeous woman is just too much!”).
The miners, infuriated at the sight of one of their own confessing love for a Chinese woman, chase the couple away, yelling “Get out, Yellowskins, get out!”
Scene 3: The Drunken Revelers
Josefa, done working in the bar, listens to the interminable noise of late-night revelry. She feels a mounting sense of dread.
Clarence, alone, stumbling in the dark hallucinates (“Is this a dagger I see before me...?). He too knows some Shakespeare, but the “bloody business” he imagines is nothing to laugh about.
The noise Josefa heard was that of white miners who have convened a vigilante committee and are after anyone they deem a foreigner (“Get out of my way. I’m mad as fury.”).
Ned sings a song that is both ironic and noble, knowing full well that for a Black man to speak out publicly will likely put him in great danger (“What is this celebration to me? The Fourth of July is yours, not mine!”) Ned of course is arrested at gunpoint and banished from the town forever.
Scene 4: The Stabbing
Dame Shirley is distraught with loss of Ned, her only real friend.
Late at night Josefa and Ramón are alone in the cabin they share on the outskirts of town. They sing of their love and the perilous situation of being “foreigners” in the town. Josefa has intimations of an early death. Joe, appears and pounds at the door and launches an abusive, ridiculing song. Josefa, insulted and furious, confronts him. Joe tries to grab her, but she fights him off with terrifying force. The two grapple with each other until Josefa grabs a knife and stabs Joe in the chest, killing him.
Scene 5: The Hanging
By morning news has spread throughout Downieville and “the hungriest, craziest, wildest mob ever seen” has gathered around Josefa’s cabin demanding vengeance for Joe’s murder. Josefa appears, calm and dignified and neatly dressed, “well put up,” as a newspaper account will later say. She is brought to the town center and given a hasty trial. (“No one dared to say a good word for her; no one was allowed to defend her.”) She is condemned to death. Josefa says that she has no defense for killing Joe, but that she would surely do the same again if her were to attack her so.
The whole town eagerly watches the execution, which takes place on an improvised scaffold on the bridge over the Yuba River. As she is led to the scaffold the mob breaks out into a crude song, “Lousy Miner.” At the last moment Josefa takes the noose, places it around her neck and jumps to her death. The crowd is suddenly overcome in stunned silence.
Dame Shirley, on her last day at Rich Bar, surveys her surroundings, with its strange mixture of ugliness and beauty: the detritus of mining, the drunken men and their litter, and the sublime natural world behind it all: “the river…and these majestic, old mountains looking lovelier than ever, while, like an immense concave of pure sapphire, without spot or speck, the wonderful and never-enough-to-be-talked-about sky of California drops down upon the whole its fathomless splendor.”
copyright by John Adams
Seeing the Elephant
Girls of the Golden West began as a bit of a wry provocation, but over time became something more serious. Its title, of course, refers to the 1905 melodrama Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco that later became the basis for the far better-known Puccini opera, La fanciulla del West. Belasco’s play is a product of its time, roughly contemporary with the novels of Jack London, and features characters such as Sonora Slim, Handsome Charlie and a “Red Indian” called Billy Jackrabbit. There’s even a Pony Express rider, which would date the action around 1860, meaning that Belasco, a San Francisco native who had run a theater in Virginia City, Nevada, and certainly knew his subject, was writing about events that took place only forty years prior (imagine events from the year 1983 in our own time).
Shortly after I finished composing The Gospel According to the Other Mary in 2012 for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I found myself itching to compose a new opera but was uncertain about the subject matter. Fortunately, an idea came about when my longtime collaborator Peter Sellars mentioned how he’d been in conversations with La Scala’s management, who wanted him to direct the Puccini version there. It had been an intriguing offer, but on reading the libretto Peter could not see himself directing an opera with such unsettling stereotypes. Instead, he mused on what an opera about the Gold Rush would be like if it used actual first-hand accounts by the people who lived it. So that was the genesis of our undertaking. Peter contributed two essential narratives, the first being the letters of Louis Clappe, a young woman from Massachusetts who spent nearly two years with her physician husband in the primitive conditions of a rough-and-tumble mining camp, Rich Bar, in the California Sierras. His second source was the Gold Rush diaries of Ramón Gil Navarro, an Argentine-born adventurer whose recollections of that period describe the Gold Rush from the Hispanic point of view. I contributed the true story of the 1851 lynching in Downieville, California, of a young Mexican woman, Josefa Segovia, who was summarily tried and hanged for stabbing a white miner. This was an event I had known about for a long time, as it took place not far from where I have a mountain cabin. Other sources, including poems written by Chinese immigrants from the era, archival newspaper accounts, and a few excerpts from Mark Twain’s classic Roughing It rounded out not only the libretto but the themes for the action as well.
What made the Gold Rush so compelling a phenomenon in the 1850s was that at its start (and long before the term came into use) it was a truly multicultural experience. Not just Anglos from the East Coast and Midwest flocked to the Land of Gold, but Mexicans, Chilenos, Chinese, Hawaiians, and African Americans. And to use another familiar term, the Gold Rush was literally “live streamed” as it happened. People in New York, Boston, St Louis, and even Paris, every day read breathless journalistic accounts from the front, much of them wildly misleading and erroneous. Our cast reflects that multi-racial variety of those who participated: Ned, the Black wagon driver (a real person befriended and described by Louise Clappe); Ah Sing, a Chinese immigrant who works as a prostitute in the mining camp’s funky Empire Hotel; and Ramón, the bartender, modeled in part on the recollections of Ramón Gil Navarro. And of course, there was the background presence, inevitably a melancholy one, of the Native Americans, who were already in the process of being pushed off their land. The shocking moment at the end of Act I when Joe gloats that killing Indians for five dollars a head is “a lot more profitable than working in the river and getting nothing” is taken from a true first-hand account of what would soon become an institutionalized obliteration of that population.
Louise Clappe’s nom de plume was “Dame Shirley,” and her letters written to her sister back East detail with a marvelous eye not only the rugged beauty of the Sierras but also the wild mix of personalities all thrown together in a frantic, usually futile, search for instant riches. Her letters are, to my mind, some of the most evocative writing by any American of that era, so vivid are her descriptions, so spot-on perceptive her judgments about human behavior and so congenially witty in describing her own predicament, that of a highly educated woman forced to make do among the crudest imaginable living conditions and the random violence of her surroundings.
I found my own “gold” in the lyrics of the corny old miners’ songs from the era. These song, with titles such as “The Gambler,” “Joe Bowers,” “Seeing the Elephant,” and “Lousy Miner,” told stories of hard luck, dashed hopes, spurned love, and frequently tragic outcomes. One song, “Joe Bowers,” recounts the sad-sack tale of a young man who came to the mountains from Missouri to get rich in order to satisfy his girl Sally, only to get a Dear John letter from her saying that she’d married the local butcher instead. The Joe of the song became the model for our Joe Cannon, the broken drunk whom Ah Sing sadly mistakes as a potential husband. Their story, as well as that of the others in the cast, reminds us why the term “seeing the elephant,” meaning to gain experience at often disastrous personal cost, became a common meme for those enduring the harsh, often desperate struggle that was these people’s lot.
I set these raunchy and vivid song lyrics to my own music. Sung by the male chorus, they provide much of the gusto in the opera, sometimes effervescent, and at other times genuinely disturbing in a way that was brought home to me five years later when I watched on television the fury of the January 6th Capitol attack in Washington.
Every work of music drama must have its own unique atmosphere or “tonality.” Nixon in China, an opera about politics, self-inflated personalities, and staged media events, needed an extrovert, technicolor musical score. The Death of Klinghoffer, which deals not only with a terrorist murder but also with age-old religious narratives, required a darker, more oracular expression, as did the looming vistas of the predawn New Mexico desert in the moments before the world’s first nuclear detonation in Doctor Atomic. When I thought of the simplicity and harshness of life in the California mountains of 1851, I knew I would have to express that in a music that was equally frugal, but it had also to be a music that could quickly oscillate between the inherent comedy of the song lyrics and the threatening violence of the racist rants of the white miners. That “tonality” is established from the very first bar, with the orchestra clanking away like a miner’s pick axe. The sound of an accordion and guitar add an anecdotally familiar color to the otherwise sparse orchestration.
Girls of the Golden West may be my most personal of all stage creations. Like the characters in its story, I too am a kind of California immigrant, having arrived here from Massachusetts in my early twenties, much the same age as many of those who came in here search of gold. My search was for something else, a sense of freedom and openness and the kind of cultural mix that was absent from my New England upbringing. For forty years I have hiked those same mountains, sometimes stumbling on the remains of an old shaft dug into the side of a steep ravine. And I too share the same sense of awe and appreciation that Dame Shirley so perfectly evokes in the opera’s very last moment—for the fathomless splendor and “never-enough-to-be-talked-about sky of California.”