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Composed: 2017

Length: 130 minutes (total)

Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd=piccolo). 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (1st=E-flat clarinet), bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, percussion (1: tuned cowbells, whip, snare drum, temple block, tam-tam; 2: bass drum, whip), piano, accordion, guitar, strings, vocal soloists, male quartet, and men’s chorus

First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: January 27, 2023, John Adams conducting

About this Piece

Seeing the Elephant

Girls of the Golden West began as a bit of a wry provocation, but over time became something more serious. Its title, of course, refers to the 1905 melodrama Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco that later became the basis for the far better-known Puccini opera, La Fanciulla del West. Belasco’s play is a product of its time, roughly contemporary with the novels of Jack London, and features characters such as Sonora Slim, Handsome Charlie and a “Red Indian” called Billy Jackrabbit. There’s even a Pony Express rider, which would date the action around 1860, meaning that Belasco, a San Francisco native who had run a theater in Virginia City, Nevada, and certainly knew his subject, was writing about events that took place only 40 years prior (imagine events from the year 1983 in our own time). 

Shortly after I finished composing The Gospel According to the Other Mary in 2012 for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, I found myself itching to compose a new opera but was uncertain about the subject matter. Fortunately, an idea came about when my longtime collaborator Peter Sellars mentioned how he’d been in conversations with La Scala’s management, who wanted him to direct the Puccini version there. It had been an intriguing offer, but on reading the libretto Peter could not see himself directing an opera with such unsettling stereotypes. Instead, he mused on what an opera about the Gold Rush would be like if it used actual firsthand accounts by the people who lived it. So that was the genesis of our undertaking. Peter contributed two essential narratives, the first being the letters of Louise Clappe, a young woman from Massachusetts who spent nearly two years with her physician husband in the primitive conditions of a rough-and-tumble mining camp, Rich Bar, in the California Sierras. His second source was the Gold Rush diaries of Ramón Gil Navarro, an Argentine-born adventurer whose recollections of that period describe the Gold Rush from the Hispanic point of view. I contributed the true story of the 1851 lynching in Downieville, California, of a young Mexican woman, Josefa Segovia, who was summarily tried and hanged for stabbing a white miner. This was an event I had known about for a long time, as it took place not far from where I have a mountain cabin. Other sources, including poems written by Chinese immigrants from the era, archival newspaper accounts, and a few excerpts from Mark Twain’s classic “Roughing It” rounded out not only the libretto but the themes for the action as well.

What made the Gold Rush so compelling a phenomenon in the 1850s was that at its start (and long before the term came into use), it was a truly multicultural experience. Not just Anglos from the East Coast and Midwest flocked to the Land of Gold, but Mexicans, Chileans, Chinese, Hawaiians, and African Americans. And to use another familiar term, the Gold Rush was literally “live streamed” as it happened. People in New York, Boston, St. Louis, and even Paris every day read breathless journalistic accounts from the front, much of them wildly misleading and erroneous. Our cast reflects that multiracial variety of those who participated: Ned, the Black wagon driver (a real person befriended and described by Louise Clappe); Ah Sing, a Chinese immigrant who works as a prostitute in the mining camp’s funky Empire Hotel; and Ramón, the bartender, modeled in part on the recollections of Ramón Gil Navarro. And of course, there was the background presence, inevitably a melancholy one, of the Native Americans, who were already in the process of being pushed off their land. The shocking moment at the end of Act I when Joe gloats that killing Indians for five dollars a head is “a lot more profitable than working in the river and getting nothing” is taken from a true firsthand account of what would soon become an institutionalized obliteration of that population.

Louise Clappe’s nom de plume was “Dame Shirley,” and her letters written to her sister back East detail with a marvelous eye not only the rugged beauty of the Sierras but also the wild mix of personalities all thrown together in a frantic, usually futile, search for instant riches. Her letters are, to my mind, some of the most evocative writing by any American of that era, so vivid are her descriptions, so spot-on perceptive her judgments about human behavior, and so congenially witty in describing her own predicament, that of a highly educated woman forced to make do among the crudest imaginable living conditions and the random violence of her surroundings.

I found my own “gold” in the lyrics of the corny old miners’ songs from the era. These songs, with titles such as “The Gambler,” “Joe Bowers,” “Seeing the Elephant,” and “Lousy Miner” told stories of hard luck, dashed hopes, spurned love, and frequently tragic outcomes. One song, “Joe Bowers,” recounts the sad-sack tale of a young man who came to the mountains from Missouri to get rich in order to satisfy his girl Sally only to get a Dear John letter from her saying that she’d married the local butcher instead. The Joe of the song became the model for our Joe Cannon, the broken drunk whom Ah Sing sadly mistakes as a potential husband. Their story, as well as that of the others in the cast, reminds us why the term “seeing the elephant,” meaning to gain experience at often disastrous personal cost, became a common meme for those enduring the harsh, often desperate struggle that was these people’s lot.

I set these raunchy and vivid song lyrics to my own music. Sung by the male chorus, they provide much of the gusto in the opera, sometimes effervescent and at other times genuinely disturbing in a way that was brought home to me five years later when I watched on television the fury of the January 6 Capitol attack in Washington, D.C.

Every work of music drama must have its own unique atmosphere or “tonality.”  Nixon in China, an opera about politics, self-inflated personalities, and staged media events, needed an extrovert, Technicolor musical score. The Death of Klinghoffer, which deals not only with a terrorist murder but also with age-old religious narratives, required a darker, more oracular expression, as did the looming vistas of the predawn New Mexico desert in the moments before the world’s first nuclear detonation in Doctor Atomic. When I thought of the simplicity and harshness of life in the California mountains of 1851, I knew I would have to express that in a music that was equally frugal, but it had also to be a music that could quickly oscillate between the inherent comedy of the song lyrics and the threatening violence of the racist rants of the white miners. That “tonality” is established from the very first bar, with the orchestra clanking away like a miner’s pickaxe. The sound of an accordion and guitar add an anecdotally familiar color to the otherwise sparse orchestration.

Girls of the Golden West may be my most personal of all stage creations. Like the characters in its story, I too am a kind of California immigrant, having arrived here from Massachusetts in my early 20s, much the same age as many of those who came here in search of gold. My search was for something else, a sense of freedom and openness and the kind of cultural mix that was absent from my New England upbringing. For 40 years I have hiked those same mountains, sometimes stumbling on the remains of an old shaft dug into the side of a steep ravine. And I too share the same sense of awe and appreciation that Dame Shirley so perfectly evokes in the opera’s very last moment—for the fathomless splendor and “never-enough-to-be-talked-about sky of California.”

—John Adams