composer for film, theater, and TV

Girls of the Golden West: someone please explain

Last Tuesday I had the great opportunity to go see the new John Adams opera Girls of the Golden West, with a libretto by Peter Sellars, who was also the stage director. Being a great admirer of Adams’ work, and having never seen one of his operas live, I was quite excited. After the opera finished, I was confused, very confused.

The opera is about the lives of gold mine workers in the mid-19th century in the US. The whole libretto is based on original sources, such as newspaper articles, eye-witness accounts, poems, popular songs from the time, etc. Everything is woven together to tell the story of several characters as they struggle to survive in the tough economical and social reality of a mining town in California. We have recently freed slaves, Asian and South American immigrants, impoverished and alienated white men, all trying to make sense of the chaotic reality around them.

It all ends up very tragically, when one of the main characters, a Mexican barwoman named Josefa, kills a white man who was about to rape her. This further ignites the xenophobic and racist hatred of the half-starved, exhausted miners, who decide to lynch her together with other racial outsiders living in the town.

Until now it all seems quite comprehensible and linear, and, at least in paper, it is. But there is something in the way all the sources are put together in the libretto that makes the understanding of the piece quite difficult. There are many characters and many situations fighting for our attention, a love affair between the wife of the town doctor and a black man who is later lynched, the secret relationship between the owner of the bar and Josefa, the almost homoerotic relationship between the two main miner characters. But none of them actually gives us anything conclusive. Even when Josefa dies, we’re not even sure if that is actually what happens.

I think the music has a lot to do with this. The John Adams I knew and loved, with his big dramatic gestures in operas like Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, seems to be himself lost between all these words and situations that so rapidly change from one to the other. There are no definitive climaxes or endings in the music, which doesn’t give the sensation of endlessness (like Wagner’s famous harmonies in Tristan und Isolde) but rather a feeling of meandering, of filling in text with notes.

I wonder why this is. Is it a composer still trying to squeeze out the last energies of a style in which he himself feels stifled and almost strangled? Or is it a problem of a librettist who wasn’t able to put all the elements together in a compelling way? I’d love to hear comments from someone who has an opposite opinion than mine. What did you get from this opera? How did you put together the elements? Feel free to comment and let’s talk about it!

For those who would like to go, it will be in the Muziektheater in Amsterdam during this week at the Opera Forward Festivals. You can get the tickets through

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