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In John Adams’ new Gold Rush opera, cultures clash with a tragic ending

For contemporary composer John Adams, it was three notes that launched his latest opera: the sound of a pick axe “chipping away at stone.” Premiering at the San Francisco Opera, "Girls of the Golden West," a collaboration with director Peter Sellars, is a story of high hopes and a shattered American dream set during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally tonight- John Adams is one of the world’s most acclaimed and performed contemporary composers, known especially for operas, including “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer.”

    Adams turned 70 this year, and he has been honored around the globe.

    All that culminates tonight in San Francisco with the opening of a new opera.

    Jeffrey Brown is back with that story.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Composer John Adams says it was three notes that helped launched his new opera.

  • John Adams:

    It just goes, ba dum dum, ba dum dum.

    And I didn’t realize until afterwards, but it was just kind of a musical image of somebody with a pick just chipping away at a stone.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Premiering at the San Francisco Opera, “Girls of the Golden West” tells of individuals caught up in the California gold rush of the 1850s, a story of high hopes and, for many, a shattered American dream.

    It’s set deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, an area Adams knows well. He lives in the Bay Area, about four hours away, and has been coming to his small cabin in the Sierras since the 1970s.

  • John Adams:

    And I had this very romantic notion that I was never going to have electricity here. I was just going to read all of Tolstoy by candlelight. But that lasted about 24 hours.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Adams recently took us into the small towns of Downieville, a setting for the new opera.

    So, all around here would have been mining operations.

  • John Adams:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And, with his dog Amos to a breathtaking trail in the Sierra Buttes that helped fire his imagination.

  • John Adams:

    What always interests me in a work of art is what I call its locale. So, a lot of my stories, particularly this one, really reflect my experience of being an American artist in my own locale.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The California gold rush has been romanticized in opera and books before.

    “Girls of the Golden West,” which we watched being rehearsed, presents a more raw tale, one with echoes to today, in which immigrant and white cultures clash, with tragic results.

    Adams credits longtime collaborator and director Peter Sellars with the idea.

  • John Adams:

    The problem is, is that the stories are all told from the white perspective. And we’re sort of turning that upside-down and getting, you know, the women’s point of view and the Mexicans’ point of view. And it’s not just an academic exercise. It’s actually a very thrilling human experience to do this.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    To find those characters, the pair dug through primary sources, photos, letters, diaries, lyrics to old songs.

    The opera’s libretto, which Sellars crafted, is made up entirely of historical texts. Just weeks before opening night, Sellars worked with his singers in a large rehearsal space at and spoke to us.

  • Peter Sellars:

    John is such a master at this point, and he has scene after scene after scene, it’s just you go, that is just overwhelming.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Were you surprised by all this source material? Was it something you knew or you just — you kept — one thing led to another?

  • Peter Sellars:

    No. Well, you dig into it, you dig into it. And as soon as you start to ask the questions most people don’t ask, of course, the answers are so rich, and so satisfying, and open up vistas.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In those texts, the pair found characters like Louise Clappe, who went by the name Dame Shirley. She’s sung by Julia Bullock.

    A highly educated woman from New England, she came to a California mining camp with her doctor husband. There, she wrote numerous letters describing life around her in frank detail.

  • John Adams:

    Living in a mining encampment for 18 months in the middle of winter, just — it’s just mindboggling how they survived.

    And yet she always kept this fantastic sense of wit and her ability to size somebody up. She’s an amazing character. And she’s real. That’s what’s so great.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Another central character, Josefa, sung by J’Nai Bridges, is a young Mexican barmaid, also based on a real-life figure.

    In the opera’s tragic finale, Josefa is hung from a bridge by a mob of white miners after she killed a man in self-defense.

    John Adams sees the new work as a more honest version of history.

  • John Adams:

    I like to think of it as that I’m making poetry of it, and…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Making poetry of history?

  • John Adams:

    Making poetry of history. And, also, when you read even the best history books, you basically tend to stay on the surface.

    But to stop in the way that Shakespeare stops and says, now, hold on a minute, what really happened between these two people that caused them to behave the way they did, that’s the poetic level.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

     It’s not an unfamiliar goal for the 70-year-old composer, who’s often mined history for source material.

    His “Nixon in China” centered on President Richard Nixon’s landmark visit in 1972. “The Death of Klinghoffer” told the story of the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by the Palestinian Liberation Front and the subsequent murder of a Jewish passenger. And “Doctor Atomic” brought the making of the atomic bomb to operatic life.

    It’s all led Adams to be sometimes labeled as a political composer. But he sees it otherwise.

  • John Adams:

    I think it’s really more a comment on people’s prejudices about classical music, that, if it’s an opera, it should be about goddesses and gods or some fairy tale from the past.

    I’m writing about my life. I’m writing about experiences that have happened in my own lifetime. And I don’t think particularly opera has any chance of continuing to be a viable, living entity if it doesn’t really discuss and address the issues of our own time.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    “Girls of the Golden West” premieres tonight at the San Francisco Opera, and will run until December 10.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Magnificent.

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