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A Rough Night at the Opera

John Adams and Peter Sellars’s Girls of the Golden West is bland, poorly staged liberalism.

Group of miners during the California Gold Rush, circa 1850s. California Historical Society / Flickr

Composer John Adams and librettist/director Peter Sellars have made a name for themselves as the lefties of the opera world. Their previous works, Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic, have made them controversial figures at times. And their topical, contemporary handling of opera can come as a shock to those who consider it a cultural form so lofty it still seems as if top hats and diamond tiaras should be worn in order to witness it. I include myself in that group.

In 1991, their treatment of the Palestinian cause in The Death of Klinghoffer, which dramatizes the 1985 hijacking of the passenger ship the Achilli Lauro by the Palestinian Liberation Organization, got them into trouble. In the view of many outraged critics and citizens, their evenhanded approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could only mean antisemitism and the glorification of terrorists.

To this day, opera companies are scared to stage it.  New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced a new production of it in 2014, then buckled under public pressure and canceled a scheduled broadcast into two thousand movie theaters.

When I read the description of The Death of Klinghoffer, I realized that I’d actually seen the 2003 film version at some film festival or other. It was such a strange, harrowing, and under-attended screening, and I’ve never met anyone else who’d seen the film, so I finally wrote it off as a bizarre hallucination. But once I realized it had really happened — and remembered how the duo’s political evenhandedness on that topic remains pretty brave today — I got my hopes up for their new work, Girls of the Golden West, now premiering at the War Memorial Auditorium in San Francisco. So, I put on a tolerably fancy outfit and went off to the opera with bright anticipation.

But my hopes were dashed from the start. Sellars, an elderly, daffy, gnomish bon vivant with high hair and a gaudy shirt, gave an almost cartoonishly conservative interview before the curtain went up. Asked to describe the “girls” whose intertwined stories provide most of the opera’s California Gold Rush narrative, Sellars praised them for not “blam[ing] anybody” for their plights, but instead “tak[ing] responsibility for everything that happens.” This description is downright peculiar when applied to Ah Sing (sung by soprano Hye Jung Lee), a Chinese immigrant who was sold into prostitution at age ten by her mother and hopes to make enough money from her trade to someday buy a farm.

At a key point in the opera, she chooses to marry one from an army of gold-obsessed miners. “She chooses her own man!” Sellars crowed, adding that in a patriarchal society like China, she would never have had such freedom of choice.

Truly, America was always great!

Not promising, but I comforted myself with the thought that Sellars was merely drunk or entering the early stages of dementia. Or maybe he simply knew how to sell the opera to his audience, stressing patriotism and freedom of choice to a crowd that prefers to believe in America’s bootstrapping meritocracy. After all, the average age appeared to be a tottering seventy-five; the average income, upper middle class to wealthy. I had press tickets, so I sat among the privileged in the pricey orchestra section. A sea of pale skin, white hair, and ugly jewelry met my gaze, but maybe it was a different up in the nosebleed seats and the Standing Room Only corral.

Then the opera started, and a pall descended on the theater. The hard-working singers did their best with a mass of material that seemed only half-dramatized, a rough draft of Gold Rush history that might eventually gel but was in no shape to present to the public.

Even the production design seemed sketched in, and the staging of some scenes was downright laughable. Every time a chorus line of booted, bearded men in plaid shirts lined up on the edge of the stage to sing about being miners — a frequent occurrence — I longingly thought of every sketch-comedy troop I’ve ever seen —Monty Python, SNL, SCTV — who would’ve known what to do with such material.

I admit that my opera education consists of two brilliant Bugs Bunny cartoons: “What’s Opera, Doc?” and “The Rabbit of Seville.” But if you give me something gripping I can get into it as well as the next working-class person who happens to love melodrama, spectacle, and extremely loud singing. I quite liked the peculiar film version of The Death of Klinghoffer and told uncomprehending listeners about it for weeks afterward.

As far as I could judge, the singers were great, with thrilling voices, but the songs themselves were not at all memorable. I should’ve known nothing good could come of Sellars laughing scornfully at the idea of using actual Gold Rush songs as a basis for the melodies. “They all sound like ‘Pop Goes the Weasel,’” he explained. Bunch of rubes, how could you use their music to dramatize their experiences?

The staging was so baffling that it distracted from the performances. I didn’t fully trust my own assessment, so I asked a friend, an aficionado who sees every new opera, and she confirmed it with a hearty “WTF?”

Later we discussed the many positive reviews, written by opera insiders who clearly didn’t want to pan two of the most talented and consistently successful people in the always-struggling business. Fortunately for critics wanting to produce a generally positive review, the opera has so much plot, you can meet your word count with mere summary. And the subject matter does seem to burnish Adams’s and Sellars’s lefty cred.

They chart the Gold Rush from its illusory potential, celebrated in a thousand international newspaper editorials as a site of raucous but cooperative effort where people from around the globe lived and worked together, often crossing class, racial, and cultural lines, to realize their dreams of prosperity. Then, in Act II, we watch the inevitable collapse: land-grabbing and racial violence erupt after the first big gold strikes make a few people rich overnight. White miners resort to vigilantism in order to drive out “foreigners,” in particular Latin American communities — Chileans, Mexicans, Peruvians — whose greater expertise in mining had become a source of resentment.

In creating the libretto, Sellars drew on a wealth of written accounts of the Gold Rush and notable examples of American discourse from the mid-nineteenth century, including Mark Twain’s autobiographical tales in Roughing It, Frederick Douglass’s famous 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” and the collected letters of “Dame Shirley,” the pen name of Louise Amelia Clappe (sung by soprano Julia Bullock), a doctor’s wife who became enthralled with the miners’ adventurous spirit and hardscrabble lives. But even with such rich material, Adams and Sellars couldn’t make it work.

One example of the atrocious staging is the climactic scene involves one of the many historical characters in the opera, Josefa Segovia (sung by beautiful and formidable mezzo-sprano J’nai Bridges). Accused of murdering a miner during an attempted rape and tried by a local kangaroo court of angry miners, Segovia was the only woman hanged in California history.

According to the most impressive reports, she dressed in her finest gown and jewelry to greet the lynch mob, displayed nothing but calm contempt for her persecutors, and gave a scornful little laugh when she was sentenced. At her hanging, she refused a mask, put the noose around her own neck, and bid the mob a jaunty farewell before jumping to her death. In short, she was an aria waiting to happen.

Unfortunately, Sellars stages Josefina’s confrontation with the lynch mob by having her seated at what appeared to be one of those narrow IKEA tables you can get for $29.99. Dame Shirley sat at the other end of the table for no discernible reason, and the long chorus line of miners, always on the job, stood immediately behind the women, glaring at the audience.

When Josefina sang her aria, its impact was considerably blunted by the crowd of glowering forty-niners surrounding her.  And — crowning idiocy — Adams and Sellars chose not to stage the magnificent scene of her death at all.

A massive tree stump also helps ruin Act II. At first, it sits next to the hewn-off end of a recently and symbolically felled great sequoia, but, as these immensities move around the stage, they become silly-looking devices that the cast uses for every purpose.

Ned Peters, a freed slave and frontier adventurer (played by bass-baritone Davone Tines) delivers the aria based on Frederick Douglass’s famous July 4 address atop the stump. In another scene, the notorious adventuress Lola Montez (ballerina Lorena Feijoo) performs her “Spider Dance” for the horny mining camp. Joe Cannon (tenor Paul Appleby) leaps frantically around the stump before killing Josefina, then the miner-narrator figure, Clarence (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny), leans against the tree to sob over her death. You’re torn between thinking how ridiculous he looks and how ridiculous it is that he’s crying at all, considering he supplied the rope for the hanging just moments before.

The staging and direction provide many unintentionally funny moments. Don’t even get me started on Dame Shirley’s husband, who never sings a note, just stalks pointlessly on and off stage while his wife seems to fall in love with Ned Peters.

But the very worst — and not at all funny — aspect of the opera is how it deals with California’s indigenous population. Already decimated by white settlers’ relentless Western migration, the arrival of the forty-niners drives them fast toward extinction. In Act I, Dame Shirley sings of an encounter with these “miserable creatures,” nearly naked and starving, and of her supposedly instant connection with one young woman who smiles at her “as if I were her best friend.”

Presumably this goes along with Act I’s romanticization, as the main characters project their fantasies onto the “Golden State” of California before the vigilante violence destroys their dreams. But while Dame Shirley narrates this encounter, Adams and Sellars project a huge black-and-white photograph of the anguished face of an unidentified Native American — belonging to some unnamed tribe, taken at some undated time — onto the back screen. They put it there to make sure we all get a big, bland sad about mass murder, transforming one face into “generic Indian” in order to represent the genocide. It was a vile act to put an actual person’s face up there. There’s a reason monuments to unbearable atrocities are big black slabs of stone.

But it’s amazing what you’ll sit through in a fancy auditorium with gilt decorations and sweeping gold curtains. So rude to stand up mid-opera and shout, “I denounce you, John Adams and Peter Sellars!” The people I know who did sneak out before the end left politely during intermission.

The performance got a dutiful standing ovation. Half the audience tried to extend the applause to a respectable length while the other half fled up the aisles, desperate for air, light, drinks, a quick escape from the parking lot, and — at least in my case — freedom from bearded, booted tenors and poorly staged liberalism.