Sunday, July 15, 2018

Dream Cast - The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I'm still on my Notre-Dame de Paris kick. I have been for years, but still am, too. How much time did I put into this Dream Cast? Way too much!

Like I stated for Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein, this Hunchback of Notre Dame/Notre-Dame de Paris dream production is definitely a miniseries, not a movie. It would be an accurate reflection of Victor Hugo's novel, and would therefore have a LOT of stuff, so two hours isn't going to work.

Most importantly: it has Jehan Frollo du Moulin!

Oui, Jehan, this is your moment!

Previously in Dream Cast:
The Tempest
Wuthering Heights

Young Frollo - Timothee Chalamet & Young Chantefleurie - Olivia Cooke

Before Claude Frollo and Paquette "Chantefleurie" Guybertaut become hateful, preternaturally aged 36-year-olds, they're happy young single parents in wildly opposite social positions. Claude Frollo, an intensely focused and extraordinarily gifted student in Paris, ends up finding new meaning in life when he adopts his baby brother Jehan after their parents die of the plague. Meanwhile in nearby Reims, Chantefleurie, worn down by poverty and prostitution, is thrilled when she gives birth to a baby girl she names Agnes. Everything's great, cue "Dear Theodosia."

But the unthinkable strikes when baby Agnes is kidnapped and a deformed toddler left in her place. Chantefleurie's anguish is only compounded when she is erroneously told (due to 15th Century forensics) that the Gypsies responsible cooked and ate her baby. Chantefleurie's and Frollo's fates converge for the first time when he ends up adopting - on a Quasimodo Sunday - the toddler left in place of Agnes.

It helps that Chalamet is French and waifish, but what really sells him to me for young Claude is his excellence in subtly showing an active interior life. Frollo is quiet and reserved, but always thinking. Cooke, an expressive standout in Thoroughbreds, could bring Chantefleurie's elation and heartbreak to life.

Frollo - Zachary Quinto

Sixteen years later, Frollo isn't doing so great. Having literally run out of human knowledge to acquire, he has turned his studies to the dark arts and alchemy, and those pursuits are driving him insane. The public thinks he and Quasimodo are demons. Jehan has turned out to be an asshole. He has a sexual awakening, but isn't allowed to have sex. Furthermore, the printing press is growing in popularity, and he worries what effect this will have on architectural trends.

Basically, Frollo is pissed off all the time, looks pissed off all the time, and do you know who also looks pissed off all the time? Zachary Quinto! That's not a diss; I love his work (and I'm also cursed with RBF). This role would let Quinto scowl to his heart's content and then dive back into early-Heroes villainy. Plus, he would look fantastic in a cassock.

Quasimodo - Joshua Castille

Part of Quasimodo's identity that is often overlooked in adaptations is that he is deaf. His beloved bells of Notre-Dame have taken away his hearing (though he can still make out the largest bell). He and Frollo develop their own sign language, but Quasimodo remains mostly isolated from society. Broadway actor Joshua Castille, who has profound hearing loss, recently performed the part of Quasimodo in the Disney musical at Seattle's 5th Avenue Theatre using American Sign Language with a singer/interpreter. Videos of Castille performing are online (he's also been on Switched at Birth), and he's an expressive and engaging actor.

Of course, for physicality, Castille isn't quite there for what this role traditionally is. Quasimodo is supposed to be lumbering and unnaturally strong, able to toss people across the room when they annoy him. He could pose a serious threat, and even though the people mock him, they're afraid of him. Castille could maybe throw...a kitten? There's certainly no way we're going to believe he can pick up his foster brother Jehan by the feet and slam him so hard against the walls of Notre-Dame that his brain comes out (he can just push him, I guess). Also, Quasimodo is supposed to be ugly and very much not. But that's what prosthetics and makeup are for!

Esmeralda - Kiersey Clemons

Race and Esmeralda is complicated and thorny. Adaptations generally cut out the Chantefleurie story, where Esmeralda is identified as Agnes from Reims, which is about 45 minutes away from Paris by train. Although she doesn't seem to actually be what we today call Roma (her father is not identified other than that he's a criminal), she "passes" with her black hair and tan skin, which is compared to those of people from Andalusia and Egypt. For adaptations that have to pare down runtime and/or want to avoid a problematic "Gypsy kidnappers" plot, it's easier to just say she's Roma and leave out the origin story.

I don't want to do that, but I would stick with a woman of color in this role. My pick would be radiant Kiersey Clemons. I saw her recently in cute, family-friendly indie Hearts Beat Loud. The role allows Clemons to show off her acting and musical chops, both of which are stellar.

With her buoyancy and singing voice, I'd love to see her as Esmeralda. In Hugo's novel, Esmeralda is street-smart and will totes pull a knife on you, but is also, heartbreakingly, a typical teenager. She wants to sing, dance, obsess over her crush, and do magic tricks with her pet goat. The idea of her as "sexy Gypsy temptress" is something the men around her project on her. Clemons could definitely show Esmeralda's vitality, charm, and tragedy.

Fleur-de-Lys - Bebe Cave

Fleur-de-Lys isn't an altogether sympathetic character. She's a noblewoman, Phoebus's fiancee, and jealous of Esmeralda. She makes fun of Esmeralda's clothes and does what she can to keep her and Phoebus apart. However, her feelings are understandable. Although born rich, as a woman, she's also born without any power of her own. She has no say in being given in marriage to a philandering douche, and she's trying to exercise as much damage control as she can.

I recently watched Tale of Tales, and was captivated by Bebe Cave, who plays Violet, a princess forced into marriage with a literal ogre. Cave's expressiveness and adaptability made her believable and endearing as naive princess, "final girl" victim, and rightful ruler. A lesser director and actor might have have portrayed Violet as a spoiled mean girl at the beginning of her story, but Matteo Garrone and Cave avoided that misogynistic cliche. Cave is the actress I'd want to explore and express Fleur-de-Lys's unenviable position.

Clopin Trouillefou - Taika Waititi

In Hugo's novel, Clopin is not the leader of the Gypsies, but the King of Thunes (beggars, vagabonds, criminals, etc). He rules the underworld gathered at the Court of Miracles as part of a triumvirate with the Duke of Egypt and Bohemia (Gypsies) and the Emperor of Galilee (Jews). Clopin is charismatic and "fun," but also a bit of a psychopath. He's more than ready to hang Gringoire (after toying with him) for the crime of accidentally wandering into the Court of Miracles. During the showdown between the underworld, the cops, and Quasimodo (the underworld mistakenly thinks Quasimodo is holding Esmeralda captive in Notre-Dame, and storms the cathedral), Clopin dies, but not before hacking off a bunch of limbs with a scythe.

Magnetic Taika Waititi would be a scene-stealer in this mercurial role.

Jehan Frollo - Owen Teague

Nineteen-year-old Owen Teague is best known for playing bully Patrick Hockstetter in 2017's It. In a departure from the novel and the 1990 miniseries, 2017 Patrick gets to be attractive and rock a killer 80s wardrobe. He dies quickly, but Teague's charisma makes an impact.

Sixteen-year-old Jehan is less sadistic than Patrick, but still a bully and major problem child. He mocks classmates, mooches money from brother/guardian Frollo, gets drunk, and visits prostitutes. Despite this, he's popular and hangs out with everyone from Phoebus to Clopin.

He can be a leader when he feels like it, organizing student raids on wine shops and fighting at the front of the underworld's attempt to free Esmeralda from Notre-Dame. His real aim there is revenge against both Claude, who has cut him off financially, and his hated foster brother Quasimodo. Unfortunately for Jehan, it doesn't go well, but he does go out in true Jehan fashion by singing defiantly in his final moments. I'd cast Teague and his sardonic grin as teen rebel Jehan.

Pierre Gringoire - John Mulaney & Phoebus - Liam Hemsworth

To be honest, I was pretty "meh" about casting either of these characters until I thought of John Mulaney as Gringoire. Then I was all for it!

Gringoire (loosely based on an actual historic figure) is an impoverished, up-and-coming poet and playwright for whom almost nothing goes right. The novel starts with his play about to be performed, but it gets held up for reasons behold his control, resulting in a furious crowd. When the production finally starts, the crowd's interest is quickly diverted by Clopin and his Flemish diplomat/hosier friend. Afterwards, he accidentally ends up in the Court of Miracles and is almost executed by Clopin. Esmeralda saves him by marrying him, but they don't have sex because she's not DTF. From then on, Gringoire has to perform in the Gypsies' acrobatic shows, balancing chairs on his head and whatnot.

The one thing that goes right for him: through his "marriage" with Esmeralda, he meets and falls in love with her little white goat, Djali. In the chaos and bloodshed of the ending, the two of them manage to escape. If you say you don't want to see John Mulaney heroically fleeing a scene of violence with a goat clutched in his arms, you are lying.

As for Phoebus, meh. All you need for Phoebus is a good-looking, halfway decent actor who can savor being a hot dick. Liam Hemsworth would be fine.

Chantefleurie/Sister Gudule - Charlotte Gainsbourg

After being told her baby was killed and cannibalized, Chantefleurie leaves Reims and becomes Sister Gudule: an anchoress living in a tiny, cold, barren cell in a public square in Paris. There she mourns her daughter and screams abuse at Gypsies (including, ironically, Esmeralda). When she and Esmeralda finally figure out they're mother and daughter thanks to matching baby shoes, their joy is short-lived. Esmeralda is arrested, and Gudule dies defending her.

It's a small role, but pretty much at 11 the whole time, and Gainsbourg would knock it out of the park.

1) Quasimodo, 2) Jehan Frollo, 3) Phoebus, 4) Fleur-de-Lys, 5) Chantefleurie/Sister Gudule, 6) Esmeralda, 7) Djali, 8) Pierre Gringoire, 9) Claude Frollo

Image info:

Header image: 
Zachary Quinto as a priest (I knew someone had to have put him in a collar sometime, and google Images delivered): this 2010 Funny or Die sketch.
Kiersey Clemons in Cannes: photo by George Pimentel
Joshua Castille: from the 5th Avenue Theatre production
John Mulaney: from John Mulaney: Kid Gorgeous at Radio City
Taika Waititi: his twitter

Jehan + character guide at bottom: illustration from 1844 edition

Timothee Chalamet: from Call Me By Your Name
Olivia Cooke: from Thoroughbreds
Zachary Quinto: from American Horror Story
Joshua Castille: promo pic for 5th Avenue Theatre by Mark Kitaoka
Kiersey Clemons: from Hearts Beat Loud
Bebe Cave: from Tale of Tales
Taiki Waititi: his Facebook profile
Owen Teague: from It
John Mulaney with dog: his twitter
Liam Hemsworth: IMDB headshot
Charlotte Gainsbourg: from Antichrist

Monday, June 11, 2018

The Hunchback Musicals: A Rambling Yet Incomplete Comparison

From the Paper Mill Playhouse production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame

As a Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre Dame superfan (there are dozens of us!), I was thrilled to finally get to see the updated Disney stage musical last week when it was put on by South Bay Musical Theatre. The community theater troupe pulled the show off with aplomb, mostly because of the cast's powerful voices - especially Jen Maggio as Esmeralda and Jay Steele as Frollo (Steele also had multiple roles behind the scenes, including graphic design and assistant master carpenter). The audience I sat in was dazzled, and shows sold out. Full disclosure: Christine Ormseth, who is a member of my childhood church, did the hair and makeup design and was in the ensemble. 

If you're not right on the pulse of the musical and/or Victor Hugo fan communities, you might ask what the updated Disney stage musical is. Remember the 1996 Disney movie The Hunchback of Notre Dame, which had almost nothing to do with Hugo's novel? If you don't, it had Frollo as a judge (instead of a priest, to pacify the Catholic church) who ended up taking in baby Quasimodo after he straight-up murdered Quasimodo's mother (rather than adopting Quasimodo to save him from Parisians who wanted to burn the ugly child to death); talking gargoyles (including one with saggy boobs); and most shocking of all, a happy ending.


If you do remember it, it's probably due to two tour de force Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz songs: "God Help the Outcasts" (sung by Heidi Mollenhauer) and incel classic "Hellfire" (sung by Tony Jay). Indeed, these songs belted out by Maggio and Steele were highlights of the South Bay Musical Theatre production. 

Disney first did a stage play of Hunchback in 1999 - in Berlin, in German. This version was similar to the movie, but had Esmeralda die. Then in 2014, a new version with a book by Peter Parnell premiered that was even closer to the novel. That doesn't mean, however, that there weren't some big of which was completely whackadoo. 

The production I saw 

When I opened my program, I was shocked (and delighted!) to see Jehan's name in the first song. Jehan Frollo, Claude Frollo's rebellious teen brother, probably gets chopped from adaptations more than Fleur-de-Lys (Phoebus's fiancee - more on that later), and at least she gets a starring role in the French Notre-Dame de Paris musical (more on that later as well). Jehan gets nothing! 

I always think this is a shame, because I kind of love Jehan. Yes, he's an asshole that I'd hate in real life, and at sixteen he's already a drunk mooch who has instigated his fellow students to carry out raids on wine shops, but he's also sassy, charismatic, and a good source of comic relief in a dark book. He's the first character we meet by name, and we meet him when he's hanging out on a column and heckling people during the interminable wait for a play to begin. 

There's our boy!

I gathered from the fact that he was only in one song in the program that he was possibly going to be killed off before his time, but I never would have predicted that The Hunchback of Notre Dame musical would make him...Quasimodo's father!

This is surprising and hilarious for two reasons:
  • Jehan hates Quasimodo
  • Jehan is about three-four years younger than Quasimodo

I'm guessing most people watching the musical didn't care that they made a character they had never heard of Quasimodo's dad, but I care. However, I don't disapprove. Mostly because it's hilarious for the above reasons (Jehan would be so mad and then make a great joke about it), but also because I get what they were going for by having Jehan and a Gypsy be Quasimodo's parents: correcting the way-off-base explanation for Frollo adopting Quasimodo, linking Quasimodo and Jehan in Frollo's mind (in the novel, Frollo decides to raise Quasimodo in honor of fellow orphan Jehan), keeping the movie's conceit that Frollo wants Quasimodo hidden, and explaining Frollo's bigotry towards Gypsies.

Frollo: anti-baby-burning killjoy

The Jehan inclusion highlights how much stuff is in Hugo's novel, and how adaptations have to pick and choose what to keep or cut. Do you try to work in how Frollo's madness is linked to alchemy and the dark arts? What about the whole part with Esmeralda's mother, a prostitute who is erroneously told that Gypsies ate her baby? There's a plethora of characters, subplots, and themes to choose from, so not surprisingly, another musical based on the same source is much different from this one.

Notre-Dame de Paris is a 1998 French musical (available on DVD!) by composer Riccardo Cocciante and lyricist Luc Plamondon and is basically the Gallic Phantom of the Opera. Despite not bothering with Jehan, the show is hugely popular in French-speaking countries, and its original cast will never be fully freed from the expectation of reunion concerts. 

Hope you all get along, original Hamilton cast!

As an excuse for me rambling some more, here are some other big differences between the two musicals. From here on out, the Disney/Menken musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame will be abbreviated as HoND, and the French musical Notre-Dame de Paris will be NDdP. 

Garou as Quasimodo in NDdP

Quasimodo's Freedom

Something HoND carries over from the Disney movie is having Frollo keep Quasimodo hidden from public view and forbidding him to leave the cathedral. For the musical, this is a major plot point, encapsulated in the sweeping Out There. Will Quasimodo disobey Frollo and go out to the city on his own? How will he fare in the alien world outside the walls of Notre-Dame?

In the novel, this imprisonment simply isn't a thing. For one, novel Frollo lacks the social awareness to care what people think about him and his charge, and he actually has Quasimodo in the public eye way more than the public would like (when Frollo and Quasimodo go out on walks everyone talks behind their backs like they're Belle in Beauty and the Beast, except the Parisians think they're literally demonic instead of just weird).

Although disobeying an increasingly evil Frollo is still a major personal struggle for Quasimodo, he's otherwise no shrinking violet in the book; if someone makes fun of him, he picks them up and throws them. Problem solved! We don't get to see Quasimodo throw anyone in NDdP, but neither is he locked up like Rapunzel.

Point: NDdP

EJ Cardona and Josh Castille in the 5th Avenue production

Quasimodo's Deafness

The fact that Quasimodo is mostly deaf due to his lifelong love of giant bells has sometimes been left out of adaptations, but this is starting to be rectified. Not only does HoND acknowledge this by making him hard of hearing, but a current production at 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle has cast Deaf actor Joshua Castille as Quasimodo. Castille uses American Sign Language in the play, which makes sense - in the novel, Quasimodo and Frollo converse with their own sign language. For Quasimodo's songs in the musical, one of his imaginary/statue friends (played by EJ Cardona) acts as his singing voice. (Update 6/16: here's a clip of Castille and Cardona at work.)

Point: HoND

Helene Segara as Esmeralda and Patrick Fiori as Phoebus in NDdP


The biggest change Disney made in their movie was having Esmeralda live and have a happy ending with good guy Phoebus. In HoND, even though Esmeralda dies, Phoebus still gets a hero role. He's a soldier with PTSD who learns to buck the system to stand up for what's right. This is in stark contrast to the novel, where he is a total fuckboy.

Novel Phoebus is engaged to aristocratic Fleur-de-Lys, but he screws around and parties a lot. (Jehan is one of his drinking buddies!) He has zero interest in anything more than sex with Esmeralda. When he gets stabbed by Frollo while trying to have that sex, he decides the affair isn't worth it and bails.

Although NDdP humanizes him a bit, it still keeps him deep in fuckboy territory and even gives him a fuckboy anthem, in which he explains at length to his fiancee why it is totally not his fault that he ended up in a hotel room with a different woman, who is now condemned to death.

Point: NDdP

Jeremy Stolle as aged-up Jehan in HoND for Paper Mill Playhouse,
Julie Zenatti as aged-down Fleur-de-Lys in NDdP

Often-Cut Characters

The only characters you really need for a Notre-Dame de Paris adaptation are Quasimodo, Esmeralda, and Frollo. An adaptation with only those three main characters would be quite minimalist, while using all of Hugo's characters would be difficult to juggle: there's a goat, there's Esmeralda's mom who lives in a hole, there's a whole subplot with Louis XI, there's a very funny Flemish hose-maker, etc. Neither HoND or NDdP risk putting a live goat onstage, but they do both use other supporting characters who don't always make the cut.

While I have to give HoND credit for the sheer ballsiness of their Jehan stunt from which I have still not recovered, and they include a quick Louis XI appearance, NDdP takes the gateau here. First of all, they put historical writer cameo Pierre Gringoire to work by having him narrate (they also make him way cooler than novel Gringoire, who is a hapless dork).

More importantly, the NdDP writers give voice to Fleur-de-Lys. Instead of giving Phoebus's fiancee the "bitch" treatment, they let her be human. The NDdP Fleur-de-Lys is giddy with love for Phoebus, but she's also very young and nervous about sex. Even in what could be seen as a villain moment - her song demanding Esmeralda be hanged - what really comes through in Julie Zenatti's masterful performance is her character's anguish and immaturity.

Point: NDdP

Nothing binds men together like singing "Belle" for the 1000th time.
Garou (Quasimodo), Daniel Lavoie (Frollo), and Patrick Fiori (Phoebus)


Here's the big one! And...I'm not picking sides. Sort of. This one truly is a matter of taste. For HoND, you've got Menken's score made even more haunting and grand with a choir, repeatedly calling the epic cathedral itself to mind. Then you have the aforementioned "God Help the Outcasts" and "Hellfire," both unusually mature and complex for Disney songs. There are a slew of covers of these, including this badass metal Hellfire.

And in its corner, NDdP has "Belle," in which Quasimodo, Frollo, and Phoebus talk about how much they want to bone Esmeralda. It's hard to overstate this song's popularity in the francophone world. It came on the radio when my sister and I were in a restaurant in Bruges a year ago, which was awesome. It is to Garou, Daniel Lavoie, and Patrick Fiori what "Let it Go" is to Idina Menzel or "On My Own" is to Lea Salonga. There are endless videos of them singing it in concerts and fundraisers, but this one is typical: the audience loses its shit every time one of the guys come on, and the guys gaze adoringly/awkwardly at each other.

This isn't to say "Belle" is NDdP's only great song. The whole soundtrack is worthwhile, and I will say that its song about the place of ill repute Phoebus and Esmeralda plan to hook up in is way better than HoND's version. (Probably goes without saying, but unlike the French musical, the Disney staging does not include simulated sex.)

Point: whichever you prefer! 

The original NDdP cast in what appears to be a 90s sitcom

Anyway, to sum up: I am a crazy person and please watch a musical based on Victor Hugo's 1831 novel.

By the way, now might be an exciting time to join the Hunchback fandom. Idris Elba is producing, directing, and starring as Quasimodo (???) in a modern-day Netflix version, which is possibly also a musical? But Elba's not alone. Josh Brolin also wants to play Quasimodo, as does Tom Hollander. Is Quasimodo the new "it" role, like Hamlet or the Joker? Will any of these productions include Jehan? If so, The Hunchblog will probably have the news first.

In the meantime, here is a bonus character guide:

1) Quasimodo, 2) Jehan Frollo!, 3) Phoebus, 4) Fleur-de-Lys, 5) Chantefleurie/Sister Gudule (Esmeralda's mother), 6) Esmeralda, 7) Djali, 8) Pierre Gringoire, 9) Claude Frollo. (The man in the hat above him is possibly Clopin?)

Image info:

Jehan etching: Gustave Brion
Frollo with baby Quasimodo: Luc-Olivier Merson
The guys kissing: The Hunchblog of Notre Dame
Character guide: Aime de Lemud 

Thursday, December 7, 2017

De-Whitewashing the Past, Illuminating the Present: Girls of the Golden West

Davóne Tines as Ned Peters and Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley

I went on a big Nixon in China bender awhile back. Actually, I'm still kind of on it. For a long time, Bluebeard's Castle was the recording always in my car's CD player, but currently it's Nixon in China, the 1987 opera by John Adams and Alice Goodman. So I was eagerly awaiting the world premiere of Adams's latest opera, this time with Peter Sellars as the librettist and director, at San Francisco Opera.

I originally had a ticket for last week (pro tip: if you're in the Bay Area, an opera fan, and under 40, BRAVO! CLUB is the way to go for cheaper tickets), but then my cat Eponine, the best cat in the world even though she is sometimes naughty, got sick with a flare-up of pancreatitis. With an intermission, the show's run time is over three hours. Since I'd be going directly after work, I knew there was no way I'd be able to give the opera my full attention while worrying about how my special girl was doing. Fortunately, I managed to change my ticket date, Eponine got better, and I was able to at last see Girls of the Golden West on Tuesday, 12/5.

Reviews have been mixed, and I will admit there are some glaring weaknesses. However, when I left the War Memorial Opera House, I was dazed and shaking. Despite flaws, I felt I had seen something truly important and of the zeitgeist.

The special girl in question

Those familiar with opera might be asking, "Wait. Isn't there an opera already with that same name?" Sort of, and that's part of the story. Some years ago, Peter Sellars was asked by La Scala to direct a production of Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, often translated as The Girl of the Golden West. But Sellars disliked the whitewashed, corny opera about the Gold Rush. Instead, he decided to produce, with longtime creative partner John Adams, a Gold Rush opera that told the reality: that the Northern California of the Gold Rush was beautiful and diverse, but rife with racism and sexism. Girls of the Golden West, particularly the second act, focuses on the spates of white supremacist violence that broke out and the lynching of Josefa Segovia on July 5, 1851.

The cast of Girls of the Golden West is young, diverse, and mostly American. Julia Bullock stars as recent East Coast transplant Dame Shirley, and Davóne Tines is Ned Peters, a former slave she befriends and possibly has an affair with. Paul Appleby is Joe Cannon, a 49er in a violent downward spiral. Ryan McKinny is his friend, Clarence. Hye Jung Lee (who played Madame Mao in SF Opera's production of Nixon in China) is Ah Sing, an ambitious Chinese victim of human trafficking who latches onto Joe in an attempt to better her life. J'Nai Bridges is the doomed Josefa Segovia, and Elliot Madore is her lover, Ramon.

Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon and J'Nai Bridges as Josefa Segovia

Like other Sellars/Adams operas, Girls of the Golden West uses various texts to tell its based-on-a-true story. The main material is the collection of letters Louise Clappe, better known as Dame Shirley, wrote while living near the mines with her doctor husband. Passages from Mark Twain, Shakespeare, journals, contemporary reporting, and folk songs are also worked in. Tines's aria based on a speech by Frederick Douglass is a high point, but this collage of sources is uneven (obviously a composition by Douglass, one of our nation's greatest speechwriters, is going to sound better than some random dude writing in his diary). Sellars isn't Goodman, who brought her own poetry to librettos.

That Sellars is working from this patchwork means that characterizations and relationships are limited by what he happened to find, relying on the performers and audience to fill in the rest. Bullock and Tines probably do the best with this. Their charisma and chemistry make you believe they are kindred spirits. They even pull off a scene where their characters start to fall for each other while pantomiming a rocky stagecoach ride - no easy feat.

The relationship between Ah Sing and Joe, on the other hand, is much harder to "get." Lee and Appleby also have chemistry, and the reason for their coupling is straightforward: Joe needs a rebound, and Ah Sing needs a meal ticket. Obviously that is going to turn into a hot mess. But when it does, something about the train wreck becomes inscrutable. Of the titular "Girls," Lee's Ah Sing is the least knowable, and we don't get a resolution for her. Joe's fixation on Josefa comes out of nowhere.

Hye Jung Lee as Ah Sing and Paul Appleby as Joe Cannon

But the faults here could be overlooked, at least for me, due to the sheer power of the second act. With a set, tight time frame (July 4th and 5th); a built-in structure (the July 4th holiday pageant and then a hasty trial); and rapidly rising racial resentment, the hour-and-a-half second act had me on the edge of my dress circle seat. It felt like an encapsulation of 2017.

Two scenes especially stand out in this regard. At one point, the angry mob of white miners come marching out with torches. At this point, I felt my stomach drop, and heard from the audience a noise mirroring that emotion - part gasp, part moan. The image, of course, immediately brought to mind the white supremacists bearing (tiki) torches as they marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in August this year. And those marchers, of course, were purposefully bringing to mind the many marches of white men bearing torches that came before them.

While media outlets have been criticized for focusing so intently on white supremacists rather than those they aim to terrify, Girls of the Golden West never lets the audience lose sight of the victims. As the white mob rants and riles each other up and commits off-stage atrocities, Josefa and Ramon remain onstage, huddled in their home, cycling through terror, anger, hope, and despair.

Another moment that feels especially relevant in 2017 happens after Josefa has fatally stabbed Joe, her attempted rapist. In the mock trial she is put through as a prelude to lynching, the men of the town rally around the idea that the sexual predator was actually a great guy and surround his victim, intimidating and threatening her, drowning out anything she might say with their chorus of platitudes.

Josefa's "trial"

Adams was well aware of the growing real-life parallels, as revealed in this New York Times profile with Michael Cooper:

It was particularly jarring, he said, to write the opera’s climax — in which a Mexican woman is lynched — against the backdrop of the 2016 presidential race. “I kept hearing ‘Lock her up!’ at those horrible rallies,” Mr. Adams said, recalling news footage of Trump supporters chanting for Hillary Clinton’s imprisonment being shown as he wrote choruses for his opera’s angry mob.

Girls of the Golden West is not a perfect opera, but it is a powerful one, and a stark reminder that there is nothing new about a diverse America and strong women, nothing new about white supremacy as a reaction to "economic anxiety," nothing new about sexism, and nothing new about imagining an America that wasn't there.

Girls of the Golden West runs through 12/10 at San Francisco Opera, and then moves to the Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera.

Image info:
All Girls of the Golden West photos: San Francisco Opera & Cory Weaver
Special Girl Eponine: my own photo