A Gold Rush History on the Opera Stage

'Girls of the Golden West' composer John Adams and librettist/stage director Peter Sellars (Photo: Courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

This may be the classical event of the year for the Bay Area: the world premiere of a new opera about the California gold rush. Girls of the Golden West is by Berkeley composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars -- it's their fourth historical opera, the most recent being Doctor Atomic, which also premiered in San Francisco. As Adams told me, it's set in a mining camp, a real place called Rich Bar, and the town of Downieville, with a focus on the voices we rarely hear from gold rush days: the wife of a doctor in a mining camp (Dame Shirley), a Hispanic dance hall owner, a Chinese prostitute, a free black wagon driver. The opera features scandal magnet Lola Montez doing her famous spider dance to Adams music. Montez, toured California gold country and settled for a time in Nevada City,  

A model for ‘Girls of the Golden West’ by David Gropman
A model for ‘Girls of the Golden West’ by David Gropman (Photo:Scott Wall/SF Opera)

Sellars has plucked the libretto, as he often does, from historical documents, this time from letters and personal accounts from the period. “What people are actually singing are the words of the people who sang them," Adams told me by phone. "And there’s a wonderful sense of humanity, the ability to laugh at oneself. And what comes through is something incredibly genuine.” The opera is close to Adams heart in more ways than one -- he's had a cabin for years near Downieville in the Sierra foothills. The premiere runs Nov. 21–Dec. 10 at the War Memorial Opera House; details here.

Davone Tines (Ned Peters), Julia Bullock (Dame Shirley), Peter Sellars (librettist and director), Hye Jung Lee (Ah Sing), Ryan McKinny (Clarence King)
Davone Tines (Ned Peters), Julia Bullock (Dame Shirley), Peter Sellars (librettist and director), Hye Jung Lee (Ah Sing), Ryan McKinny (Clarence King) (Photo: Cory Weaver/SF Opera)

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