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

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