School history books and Western movies typically portray the California Gold Rush as a time when white pioneers ventured west to a lawless and near-desolate land, to strike it rich. But accounts from the period portray a much more complicated society — one where different ethnic groups mingled and often clashed; where gender roles slowly began to shift away from Old World conventions.
With San Francisco Opera’s Girls of the Golden West, composer John Adams and librettist-director Peter Sellars give a much more nuanced take on this historical period. The new opera, which had its world premiere last night on Nov. 21 and runs through Dec. 10, centers on the tales of three women from radically different backgrounds — an East Coast dame, a Mexican waitress, and a Chinese sex worker — and one man, an escaped slave.
Adams and Sellars cobbled these stories together from poems, letters, diaries, and literature from the period that represented a cross-section of voices: famous ones like Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, and Alfonsina Storni as well as lesser-known miners, runaway slaves, Chinese railroad workers, and white settlers.
Dame Shirley, a well-off doctor’s wife who settles in the mining camp Rich Bar, is a witty and insightful narrator who holds together the complicated, overlapping storylines of Girls of the Golden West. Soprano Julia Bullock is humorous and campy as Shirley in the first act, when her rich-lady sensibilities clash with the harsh realities of the camp. But she also brings about some of the most emotionally poignant moments in the second act, when white settlers, restless and angry from their Gold Rush dreams not panning out, begin an onslaught of racist attacks on other residents of the area.
Shirley’s character was based on the real-life physician’s wife Louise Amelia Clappe, whose 1851-52 letters, published as The Shirley Papers, informed much of Sellars’ libretto. As Shirley, Bullock provides many of the historical details that make the opera feel real in lieu of props or complicated set design, and her crystalline voice is one of the most beautiful of the production.
Bass-baritone Davóne Tines’ Ned Peters, a runaway slave who becomes friends with Dame Shirley on her journey — and yes, there are some hints of flirtation between the two — delivers another one of the most compelling moments in Girls of the Golden West. When drunken, rowdy white miners revel in a sinister 4th of July celebration that reeks of racism, he delivers a passionate speech based on Frederick Douglass’ “What to a slave is the 4th of July?,” echoing questions of freedom and racial inequality that are still relevant today.
While Girls of the Golden West isn’t heavy-handed in its political messaging, it’s hard not to draw parallels between these violent, torch-bearing miners and the mobs of white supremacists we’ve seen at recent events like Charlottesville. Motivated by a lethal cocktail of racism and economic insecurity, miners who failed to strike it rich in the Gold Rush take their anger out on Latino, Asian, black, and Native people in the area, culminating in brutal attacks.
Much like it does in the real world, the white settlers’ racism merges with sexism in several of Girls of the Golden West’s most dramatic plot points, as when they harass Chinese sex worker Ah Sing (played by soprano Hye Jung Lee), or when they lynch waitress Josefa Segovia (mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges), who kills a man in self-defense.
The opera doesn’t sugarcoat these traumatic and unjust happenings, but it also leaves room for the women to speak their piece. Ah Sing, who sings about being sold into sex slavery at 10 years old but takes a certain level of pride in her business acumen as an adult, has a rich, complicated backstory. And Segovia, based on a real-life woman who was hanged over the Yuba River, displays simultaneous grit and tenderness in her journey of love and survival.
These characters give Girls of the Golden West its depth, but Sellars could have taken the opera up another notch by including stories from indigenous people from the area. Native Americans are only mentioned twice in passing — once when Dame Shirley describes Native women in a racist, insulting way, and another instance in reference to a massacre. Surely there are Native people from history whose stories could have been incorporated into the opera as skillfully as the others.
In terms of casting, San Francisco Opera has done an admirable job featuring young, diverse, stand-out talent. None of the actors are big names yet, but they’re being heralded as rising stars — especially Bullock and Tines. It was an admirable and surprising choice for Adams cast Bullock, who is African American, as Shirley, a white woman, especially given the preponderance of white actors in brownface in Western movies and the biases that exist in Hollywood (and opera) casting today.
Girls of the Golden West is a fictionalized account, but even so, Sellars and Adams are opening up a timely dialogue about our state history that helps us better understand the present.