26 November 2017

Girls of the Golden West at San Francisco Opera

Last Tuesday I was at the War Memorial Opera House for San Francisco Opera's world premiere of Girls of the Golden West, a new work set during the California gold rush in the Sierra Nevada in 1851. The music is by John Adams and the staging and libretto by Peter Sellars. As was his practice in earlier collaborations with Adams, Sellars has formed the libretto from an eclectic variety of texts: news reports, diaries, popular songs, poems, mostly from the period being covered.

The first notes of the opera were not what I had expected (and this was pretty much the last surprise of the very long evening), mostly because I have become used to increasingly rich and complex sounds from Adams, and this sounded thinner, sparser: I read later in the program that this was his deliberate attempt to mirror the "spartan, simple, almost crude life" of the camps (I guess the richness of the natural landscape doesn't enter into it, or the richness inherent in anyone's emotional life), but it ended up sounding mostly like a stripped-down version of his usual style. It hits a number of familiar Adams tropes – the chugging rhythms and turbulent choruses, the elevated strings that halo the words with a sense of mystery, lyrical passages setting Spanish poems, a setting of a distinguished early modern English poet (this time not the John Donne of Dr Atomic but Shakespeare), and an ending that, like that of Nixon in China, offers calmness and contemplation after the action. If you like Adams, you will like or at least be intrigued by this score, though if you love Adams perhaps you won't, as it ends up sounding not like a new development but like Adams Lite. Of course any score by an artist like Adams is worth listening to, but that's the sunny-side-up way of saying that this score maybe isn't worth listening to on its own, outside the context of his body of work. I have heard that this music is extremely difficult to perform, which makes the accomplished singing and playing on opening night a real achievement, though perhaps once it's all been absorbed more deeply the performance will start to feel a bit less controlled and maybe wilder and more intense, especially in the violent second half.

The opera opens with Clarence center stage, a character that, I found out later from the program, is a miner, though he is dressed in fancy fringed buckskin over what looked like a flowered shirt: the effect is a bit camp, and I don't mean mining camp, particularly as he starts off by singing an almost hilariously homoerotic Whitmanesque paean to the lusty, eager, brawling young men of the mines, with "nothing feminine about them" – looking later at the sources of the libretto listed in the program (which is a general list, without specific citations or passages, just a list of authors) I guessed that this was maybe from Mark Twain, which makes me wonder if there wasn't some irony built into the original that was missing without the larger context of the passage, which is one of the recurrent problems with the libretto (though by no means the only one). To give another example, anticipating a bit: in the second half of the opera Ned Peters, a mule driver described as "a mulatto", gives us Frederick Douglass's famous speech "What to a slave is the Fourth of July?", which specifically mentions Virginia, and though I'm sure life wasn't easy for African-Americans on either side of the country,  the situation in California (a frontier free state) was surely distinct enough from that in Virginia (one of the original colonies and a slave state) so that using the speech here jolts us out of the moment (even if you accept, and I am willing to, that an uneducated mule driver can match the towering eloquence of Douglass). It seems odd and arbitrary to import such famous words into a different time and place. We are told that the crowd of whites tried to lynch Ned after this, but since what he says here was actually imported from a different person on a different occasion we are left to wonder what, if anything, really prompted the attempt. It's one of many puzzles in an opera that strenuously claims to be based in historical facts.

Back to our buckskinned miner: I did hope when he appeared that at least the miners would be allowed to tell their side of their story (one of my criticisms of the Dr Atomic libretto was that all the military men, when we actually got to see any, were consistently buffoonish), but that hope didn't last long, as right away the closest thing we have to a narrator or guide, Dame Shirley, shows up and gives him that "putting the blowhard man in his place" look so familiar from 1950s sitcoms. ("Dame Shirley" was the pseudonym of Louise Clappe, a New England woman who lived in the camps for a while with her husband Fayette; she wrote entertaining letters to her sister back east, and these descriptive letters form a very large and beautifully written though undramatic part of the libretto.) There's a moment at the end of the opera in which Clarence and Shirley are seated at opposite sides of a table while tragic events unfold around them and it would have been a dramatically powerful tableau if there had been any sense that here were two equal opposing forces.

But there's little complexity or individuality in how the miners are portrayed – "the miners" by the way are presented as mostly white American men, which I think is not quite  historically accurate; but here the men of color, like Ned or the Mexican Ramón, are otherwise engaged (as mentioned earlier, Ned is a mule driver, and Ramón works at a hotel, or maybe it's a casino or a restaurant or all three). The women, besides Dame Shirley, include a Chinese prostitute named Ah Sing (I assume the name is meant to be heard as "I sing"), a Mexican woman named Josefa, and the touring Lola Montez, who is given a silly version of her celebrated "spider dance" by choreographer John Heginbotham, which ends with her pulling out a huge Flit gun, which, according to Wikipedia, was not even invented until the late 1920s, but then the mining camp bar also had neon lights, not invented until 1910, so clearly the staging is not going to take too literal an approach to historical period.

Perhaps these anachronisms are a deliberate attempt to pull us into a more flexible sense of historical meaning so that we see the events of the past in relation to our present day, though it hardly seems necessary to make a point of doing this, given how zeitgeisty the approach is to the subject matter. It seems odd that Adams and Sellars apparently think they need to enlighten the audience with lectures on how rough things were for women and people of color, as if this had never previously been brought to our attention in other works, or the news, or the comments section of anything on-line, or just by living life and observing it. In this opera the people of color get eloquent speeches or lovely romantic songs in Spanish; they are given passages that give them some sort of interior life and reactions to the life around them. The white miners mostly speak in doggerel popular songs, including ones lamenting betrayal by their girlfriends or the hardness of a miner's life (no one here seems to find any actual gold); presumably this is meant to explain their violent anger in the second half, which ends in a lynching, but none of the miners actually analyze their own situation or speak individually; the treatment of them is very de haut en bas.

And there's more than a whiff of really unpleasant condescension in hearing this opera's two white male creators offer the standard denunciation of white male power as if these working class miners, mostly poor, uneducated, and struggling (and, of course, long dead, and as anonymous in death as they were in life), were as privileged, connected, and successful as Adams and Sellars. This isn't a political objection, but an aesthetic one: if you're putting these characters on stage, and spending so much time on them, give them their own voices (and let me emphasize the plural). As it is, the miners take up a lot of stage time but mostly as bad guys who react to the failures of their own lives by mistreating or abusing the men of color and the women. The ultimate effect is to make us see the latter almost entirely in relation to the white men, as victims of their power and their violence, and not as people with lives independent of that power. But such are the hazards of seeing people as groups rather than as individuals.

The opera's first half, which is about 80 or 90 minutes long, meanders around. We hear from Ah Sing, a sex worker ambitious for a better life through marrying a miner; we meet Dame Shirley and her husband Fayette, who is silent even when his wife apparently takes up with Ned the handsome mulatto mule-driver. She leads Ned around hand-in-hand while her husband follows making ineffectual "Hey, wha. . . ?' gestures. I have no idea why he stuck around for their affair, or if it really happened; although I tried to avoid reading about the opera before seeing it, I did read the bullet points in an e-mail sent to subscribers by Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, which said:

"The libretto is made up of a rich panoply of voices from Dame Shirley (our narrator) to Mark Twain, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, the Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, and original mining songs. All of the stories in the opera are true and come from first-hand accounts. The love interests between various characters are dramatic constructs that help us contextualize the emotional world these characters might have inhabited, but the stories themselves all happened."

Insofar as I can figure out what this means, I think we're being told that, as in a Lifetime movie, this opera is "based on actual events" that didn't really include the emotional framework (that is, the fairly conventional romances) the creators have imposed on what we're seeing. This may help explain why so many of the relationships seem arbitrary or at least unfleshed.

Dame Shirley comes across some Native women, whom she describes as "wretched creatures" and "Macbethean witches" – so is this an educated nineteenth century New Englander's racially prejudiced view, or are we supposed to infer that these women are already suffering from the incursion of foreign (American) miners, or . . . something else? What is this incident doing here, besides checking off the "Native Peoples" box? The large projected face of a native woman at the back of the stage keeps its secrets. I like the nonlinear, collage-type librettos, but of course they will always work at some level, because any semi-intelligent observer can draw some sort of conclusion from the various juxtapositions, though it's also often the case that our thoughts tend to run along their usual tracks unless jolted out of them by a strong point of view. Such librettos can also be arbitrary and lack focus, which was the case here; the first half is busy with random incidents, all of which run on a bit too long, and the whole first act struck me as mostly pleasant.

The first act, I realized later, must have been meant as a contrast to the more violent (and even longer) second act, but it goes on too long to have its intended effect: by the time the second half started it was already nearly 9:30, and I had been working all day, and my expensive seat (second row in the center orchestra) was feeling increasingly uncomfortable. There were a few departures during intermission but on the whole I was pleased to see a new work greeted so respectfully by the audience, though I can't say I sensed a huge amount of enthusiasm around me.

The second half opens with Dame Shirley, costumed like Ellen Terry's Lady Macbeth in John Singer Sargent's 1889 portrait, declaiming the speech "The raven himself is hoarse . . ." – this is the speech that includes Lady Macbeth saying "unsex me here", which might have provided an interesting angle on the male/female dynamics in this play if it weren't already all too obvious which side we needed to be on. It was pleasing, however, to see some acknowledgement that cultural life, often on a very sophisticated level, sprang up with the mining camps. The passage hearkens back to the "Macbethean witches" Dame Shirley saw in the native women, but I felt no real resonance there, just a coincidence.

Things rapidly turn sour: this is the Fourth of July, and the American miners are having a rowdy celebration that keeps threatening to turn ugly, until finally violence breaks out against the Asians and Latinos in town, culminating in a semi-judicial hanging/lynching of Josefa, who has stabbed Joe, a drunken miner who kidnapped and attempted to rape her.

What we see on stage is Josefa at home with her beloved Ramón; the drunken and armed Joe breaks in, abducts Josefa, and later tries to rape her. She stabs him in self-defense but is hanged for the murder, dressed with great dignity and beauty, and "no one speaks up to defend her". Where was Ramón? His disappearance here doesn't speak well for him. [Update: See the comments for clarification on this point.] But it turns out that this is one of those semi-invented incidents, and maybe Ramón was just shoe-horned into the opera, having failed to appear in life to offer a satisfyingly operatic romance. According to the program, there was an actual woman named Josefa, who killed and was killed in a similar manner. She was a waitress who was "harassed by a drunken white miner", whom she stabbed. I have no idea what "harassed" means in this context, and no one seems to know exactly what happened. Does that matter? It does if you wonder if her murder was justified ("her murder" meaning both the murder she committed and the murder committed on her, and assuming you can find any killing "justified").

Here come the conventional disclaimers: I certainly wouldn't minimize, excuse, or dismiss whatever this drunken miner did, even given the different behavioral expectations between the San Francisco Bay Area in 2017 and a gold rush mining camp in 1851 – how you treat waitstaff is an excellent indication of what kind of person you are. But there are degrees in everything and if you're talking about a kidnapper/rapist, yes, by all means, stab away; but if you're talking about someone who is just being a jerk in a crowded public place, the punishment should maybe stop short of, you know, death. So possibly what we could have had here is a woman who is slightly sociopathic, and stabbing someone who is annoying but not physically threatening is actually kind of hilarious and almost endearing in a John Waters kind of way (which is not the high-minded Adams/Sellars way). If her reaction was, in fact, let me say overkill, then I can see why "no one spoke up for her". But such a character is stronger, stranger, and frankly more interesting than the Sellars version, which is very Birth of a Nation: a loving woman in an age- and gender-appropriate romance whose home is invaded protects her virtue and is punished for it. This wasn't a complex take on simplistic melodrama, it was the thing itself. The Adams/Sellars Josefa is, simply, a victim of gross injustice, whereas the shadowy historical woman is  possibly, ambiguously, a more or less cold-blooded killer, and you can see why "no one would speak up" for someone who is potentially so coolly unhinged. Why are we given the simplest, most sentimental version possible of her story? There's nothing in the Girls version of the story that the staunchest Victorian patriarch would find threatening.

Reading the synopsis in the program after seeing the opera, it looks as if Adams and Sellars intended, or thought they had achieved, more of a dramatic arc than I saw on the stage. The whole first half seemed so low-key that I wondered several times if the piece wouldn't have been more effective semi-staged across the street at Davies Symphony Hall; there is very little interaction among the characters, who mostly give long speeches to us rather than to anyone else on stage. Did the mere fact of staging the work in an Opera House lead me almost subconsciously to expect greater dramatic impact and interest in character? The ghost of Puccini's Fanciulla del West hangs over this whole production, starting with the title and its pointed plural (by the way, unlike many of those I heard from after the opera was first announced, I like the title and its clear implication of a revisionist take on the Puccini/Belasco work). The last of Shilvock's bullet points about the opera was:

"The title reflects another opera – the singular “Girl of the Golden West” by Puccini. The reference is not intended as a critique of Puccini. Rather it’s intended as a contemporary interpretation of the source material that bridges both operas, seen through very different eyes 100 years later. To explore this and other fascinating discussions about this work, we invite you to visit sfopera.com/goldenwest where you can delve into a wonderful variety of insightful background materials."

That's diplomatic, and I think smudges what's really going on, as everything else I've seen about the creation of this opera, including what's in the program book, suggests that correcting Puccini was indeed a major factor here. And this is in line with Adams's continuing agon with past composers; after grappling with Beethoven in Absolute Jest and Handel and Bach in The Death of Klinghoffer,  El Niño and The Gospel According to the Other Mary, why wouldn't one of the pre-eminent opera composers of our day tackle the man who still dominates opera schedules nearly a century after his death? But I have to give this round to Puccini, his librettists, and Belasco, whose strange work, despite some stereotypes that grate on viewers nowadays, provides a much more emotionally complex experience than Girls of the Golden West: The Fanciulla lead is a strong woman with a conflicted inner spirit; the romantic lead is a Mexican bandit who longs for a different life, the heavy is a white man, the sheriff, the official keeper of law-and-order, whose unrequited love makes him both dangerous and sympathetic. The miners have individual quirks, and as a group they may be quick to anger, but can be persuaded by eloquence to justice and compassion. A strange air of homesickness and dissatisfied longing hangs over Fanciulla, and – ironically in view of the conventional American narrative – hope is found only by leaving the frontier, which remains beloved. By contrast, the effect of Girls is too often simplistic and preachy.

The orchestra, led by Grant Gershon, was in fine form, and all of the performers – singers Ryan McKinney as Clarence, Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley, Kai Brothers as Fayette, Davóne Tines as Ned Peters, Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon, Hye Jung Lee as Ah Sing, Elliot Madore as Ramón, J'Nai Bridges as Josefa, and dancer Lorena Feijóo as Lola Montez – were outstanding and I would love to hear them all again, though perhaps in a different piece, and preferably without what I assume was the amplification of the voices, which led occasionally to some odd effects. There are five remaining performances if you'd care to check the opera out for yourself.


Lisa Hirsch said...

Yes, they are all amplified - if you couldn't see the body mikes, Adams's usual sonic designer is fully credited in the program.

Because of where you were sitting, you couldn't see that Ramon was tied up and beaten by the whites and spent the trial on the floor of the opera house stage.

Patrick J. Vaz said...

Thanks for the clarification, but I have to fault the staging if such a key moment was not clearly visible from the center of the orchestra.

Lisa Hirsch said...

Fair enough! He was behind the row of miners.