Sleeping with Girls of the Golden West: My Unexpected Return to the Operatic Scene.

Last night, Tom indulged me in my last minute crazy suggestion and took me to the opera after my years1 of absence from the scene.  How fitting, too, that The Girls of the Golden West was playing, a great introduction to tales of Gold Country for a curious British academic.  It was a beautiful day to be out in the City2, and a glorious night to be with one of my most good looking bromance dates this year3.

Wine and Heartbreak

Most operas present tragic moments that break my heart, but what could be even more tragic is that I did not have wine4 before the show5.  Whichever was more heartbreaking is to be determined. I thought it would be smart not to have wine take me to my happy, relaxed place, especially since I wanted to be alert and engaged in my return to the opera house.  We had happy hour cocktails at The Corridor6 though, and although lighter in alcohol, they still delivered a happy and calm temperament; perhaps a little too calm for the opera.

People of Gold and People of Color

Act I opened and my eyes begged to close.  It was my long-delayed return to the Opera and my body, post-three cocktails and a preceding series of exciting but eventually exhausting road trips7, struggled to stay awake.  The libretto sounded to me like a litany of all things Peter Sellars needed to cover8 to set-up the time period, diverse characters, and tone of the gold rush.  It didn’t help that each character sang for so long and so differently – especially in syntax, intonation, and context of their speech and/or soliloquy.  There was also an absence of a melodic thread that seamlessly connected the characters and scenes. There were fragmented pieces of lives coupled with fragmented pieces of music. That is my impression of Act I, or at least what I remember from my waking moments.

At intermission, I told Tom that it was the chorus of miners that resonated with me the most on the First Act – they were melodic, rhythmically up tempo, and repetitive in words and music.  They were charming, but somewhat devoid of depth and texture; just exactly what I needed for my re-emergence in the opera spectator scene.

Pop Analysis

In sober reflection, the elements that somewhat put me to sleep, were the golden treasures of this opera. Each character’s unique libretto intonations and musical syncopations represented the essence and truth of the gold rush: It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t refined, and it was definitely not a society of seamless human connections. There was lively rhythm to pair with the sounds and movements of mining; symphonic harmony from the mob of miners to serve the soul and the heavens; and each minority character’s non-harmonizing unique voice, perhaps painfully representing individuality and isolation. There were glimpses of romance, opportunity, and hope that rose through the cracks of this operatic world. They were there, although, momentary. As intermission neared, the glimmer of the golden operatic world started to fade; and we clearly saw the grim, gritty direction we were to behold.

With Death I Awake

Act II did not forgive my inattention and brute inclination to sleep9 in the previous Act.  The curtain opened with Macbeth and sustained Shakespearean tragedy throughout.  Paired with the opera’s generosity in minority main characters is a showcase of the tragic norm for their existence in the Gold Rush era, when there was so much hatred and animosity10 toward people of color.  You could exist as a person of color, but as a price for your existence, you must expect to be ostracized, punished, and eventually most likely die of a brutal death.  This, as morbidly and ironically as it may sound, brought life to the opera. All of a sudden, I, and even my snoring Balcony neighbors from Act I, were more engaged as the main characters died one by one, not through the lyricism of cholera or pneumonia11, but through the brutality of a knife, shotgun, or a rope; so very American.  Sellars thoughtfully tempered the high inclination to showcase the exhibitionism of tragic deaths by allowing the audience to let their imagination fill in the details. This was a dramatic contrast to the tediousness of Act I, where we were showered with every detail we could and could not possibly imagine.

Act II also delivered the melodramatic aria I was craving.  The Mexican barmaid Josefa Segovia sang of love and of pain in Spanish; and it was the entrancing lyricism everyone sifted for since Act I. English operas are, naturally, easier to understand, but there is just something more sublime, lyrical, and heart-wrenching when an aria is sang in a language so soft and rich in sustained vowels.  Josefa’s trial and death12 was arguably most unjust, and she deserved to sing the opera’s most beautiful aria.

At the end of the night, Tom asked me if I were still glad I went to see the opera.  I said, absolutely, but more so because I saw it with him. I realized tonight that it wasn’t only because of Tom that I was glad to have seen The Girls of the Golden West.  It celebrates the writings of women and minorities, most often neglected, forgotten, or lost; it highlights the strength and vulnerabilities of the cultural minorities in a past time that still resurfaces today; and it was a thoughtful work of art wherein each element, seems to have been so measurably crafted to deliver an obvious and symbolic meaning.  It was not an easy libretto and music to digest; but who wants easy when you escape into a heightened form of art, sophistication, and class in the opera? Or at least pretend to.  Sometimes, pretending is enough to inspire other moments to uplift the soul.

Thank you again, Tom.

Girls of the Golden West is an original American Opera by John Adams and Peter Sellars.  Performances run at the San Francisco Opera until December 10, 2017.  Tickets are $31-382.


  1. Queue the well-deserved Game of Thrones ringing of the shame bells, please.
  2. San Francisco
  3. I’ve had quite a slutty bromance year
  4. A striking deviation from the past few days.
  5. Yes, dramatic, but that’s nothing new!
  6. Fantastically located about a block away from the Opera House.
  7. Blog post coming soon.
  8. According to the synopsis, the creators derived the characters and events from the following sources: Miner’s ballads, Louise Clark’s letters, Ramon Gil Navarro’s diary, the memoirs of fugitive slaves, poems by Chinese immigrants, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, poems of Alfonsina Stornito, Frederick Douglass’ speech, Lola Montez’ biography, and writings of California historians Hubert Howe Bancroft and Josiah Royce.
  9. SO rude!
  10. Sounds so current, huh.
  11. Ahhh… the sweet tragedy of death by operatic disease!
  12. A miner assaulted and tried to rape Josefa and in the process of defending herself, stabbed the man to death.  No one came to her defense and she was hang on a bridge in Gold Country.  A plaque in Gold Country memorializes this real tragic story.

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2 Responses

  1. Ava says:

    Opera has never been my thing but I am interested in all things Gold Country! Especially when it involves the history of Gold Country. You definitely make it sound interesting.

    • finewinepoet says:

      Thank you, my friend, for reading. The opera paints a picture of the members of the Gold Rush community whose voices were traditionally not heard – minorities and especially women; and I think that is empowering. The music is not entirely lyrical, though, and the libretto, although in English, is still somewhat difficult to absorb. I think if you come forewarned and wide awake, you will find it interesting. Let me know if you decide to go. Park at the Civic Center and just walk about a block and a half to the Opera House. Cheers!

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