In California, Visions of Defiance and Grace
Finding Political Inspiration in the Unlikeliest of Places: The Opera
When I started this column a few weeks after Donald Trump had been elected our 45th President, I knew that something had gone drastically wrong with our politics, but I couldn’t then grasp how this disquieting year would transform us. It’s been a scarring 12 months, and here we are now at the end of this administration’s first year, having endured something together—just what, I can’t really say, and nor can I guess exactly where this dangerous episode in American history is headed.
But I will say that our artistic communities have been responding in ways that have helped keep me afloat. And today, as historic marches across the country mark the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency, I would like to tell you about an old story that I have recently witnessed re-imagined for this shocking era. It’s a national myth about the most blessed land on Earth, a place of such vast riches that you can just pull wealth right out of the ground, a beautiful terrain of natural magnificence, remarkable people, wide open spaces for everyone to enjoy, and the advancement of freedom—how does this land turn into a place of cavernous inequality, xenophobic resentment, economic desperation, hate, illiberality, and murder? I know you’ve heard this story before, but I’m not talking Trump-Era United States. I’m talking about the California Gold Rush.
This is the place that John Adams—quite likely America’s preeminent living composer—has chosen to set his fifth and latest opera, Girls of the Golden West, which I recently saw in its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera. Discussing contemporary politics by assaulting a major American myth is by now par for the course for Adams: he made a name for himself by scandalizing critics when he wrote an opera about Nixon’s visit to China (now regarded as a classic), and he was later celebrated for making one around Robert Oppenheimer and his unleashing of the nuclear demon.
He has also considered making an opera from the life of LBJ, as well as the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco, TX, but he ultimately decided to explore the California Gold Rush, a quintessentially American event. This episode embodied our distinctly New World sense of optimism, fresh starts, and deeply entrenched belief in equality and social mobility, and it combined these good things with white supremacy, Manifest Destiny, pillage, extermination, and greed. The Gold Rush communities that formed in California exhibit the melting pot that is America, drawing hopefuls from all over the world alongside ranks of resentful white men who believed the fat of the land was their birthright—despite the fact that California had only been part of the Union for one year when the Gold Rush started. This episode engages some of the deepest questions of this nation, questions that are far from resolved and are very much at the heart of the present crisis.
Yet though there was very much white supremacy in the Gold Rush, and even as Adams’ nativist ’49ers plotted race riots, I was moved by their earnest pride for America, which the composer relates in their drinking songs. While it’s true their boasts are at times so absurdly grandiose as to come right from a Trump rally—”We’ve got the highest mountains here / Taller trees, and faster deer”—there is much sincerity and earnest truth when they sing, “There is no land upon the earth / Contains the same amount of worth.” America has long prided itself on being just such a cornucopia to the globe, and California, with its bountiful natural resources, extraordinarily fertile farmlands, and intense, savage beauty, often seems most blessed of all. I cannot doubt the miners’ sincerity because I have felt exactly this pride for my home state, even as I have seen many Californians exhibit the exact xenophobia that led these miners to disparage the diverse peoples who have boundlessly enriched our culture (many of them arriving here long before Americans did), while also providing a source of cheap and often exploited labor to make the state run.
This, it seems to me, is the riddle that Adams examines, a riddle foundational to America, that has returned with a vengeance, starting in 2016: Why in a land with so much wealth and opportunity is there so much resentment and animosity? Why in a place that is so beautiful and so desired the globe over are we tearing ourselves apart with hatred?
Opera is the most literary of classical music forms, and Girls of the Golden West is a particularly literary opera. Using a collage method familiar to 20th-century American literature, librettist Peter Sellars composed Girls’ libretto from the remarkable letters of frontierswoman Louise Clappe, as well as newspapers and songs of the time, immigrant diaries, and the writings of Frederick Douglass and Mark Twain. As I experienced it live, these words came across as a distinctly popular American idiom that is full of poetry—so much so that when Act II begins with a staging of Macbeth, it took me a moment to register that we had transitioned from the words of America to those of the Bard.
Adams has observed that these American lyrics demanded that he write a certain kind of music. “What makes this opera unique for me is the influence of the Gold Rush lyrics,” he told the San Francisco Opera, “because structurally they’re as simple as can be. You can’t take language this simple and this frank and set it to overly complex music. It needs to have music that respects its own simplicity.” This is a style that Adams has honed over a lifetime of dealing with America’s most crucial events—including a truly remarkably response to 9/11—and so it is no stretch to say that the sounds of his operas have very much become a part of what America sounds like.
Sellars’ collaged lyrics give this music a basis in our collective voice and shared national history. The people who built the California Gold Rush must have known that they were part of some grand historical moment that would live on in our national memory, and the documentation they have left of this episode testifies to the remarkable thoughts and feelings stirred up by this unique event. Watching Girls of the Golden West, I was able to feel the emotion behind this well-known American myth in new and surprising ways. I realized there is still so much here to learn from and think through: the form penetrates through the popular viewpoints of the era in a way books, film, and TV cannot. To hear the mixed-race character Ned intone Frederick Douglass’s words “What to a slave is the Fourth of July?,” backed by an orchestra while white ’49ers celebrate America’s founding, is to feel the emotion of this sentiment in a more powerful and overwhelming way than I have ever felt it. Similarly, Adams’ ability to open up the songs of the era for a 21st-century audience gives an important viewpoint on the white men who came to California in search of a better life, and whose ambition mixed with desperation, their compassion combined with exploitation.
What ultimately most resonated for me in this work was its polyphony of viewpoint, and this opens onto one of the most unremarked aspects of this opera—its feminist bent. Despite being set in a thoroughly macho environment, Girls of the Golden West revolves around three powerful female personalities, and its climatic scene is the lynching of a Mexican woman for defending herself from a man trying to rape her. The frank, elucidating frontier letters of the fish-out-of-water Louise Clappe—under the pen name Dame Shirley—form the backbone of the libretto and are drawn from her published works, widely recognized as among the great American frontier chronicles of the 19th century. The Chinese prostitute Ah Sing performs the opera’s most remarkable act by purchasing her freedom, and her forceful entrepreneurial designs best any man in the story. And lastly there is the lynched Josefa, a woman whose quiet poise and grace are far too great for the indignities she is made to tolerate daily—her stabbing of a man out to rape her is as much a response to a lifetime of abuse as it is an act of self-defense. It is in these three women, who are each deeply affected by the far West, and who see much better than their male counterparts how their common struggles are obscured by false divides, that the opera shows us the kind of intersectionality that has been too often missing from politics in these divisive times.
Amid all this talk of racial justice, equality, and shared struggle, I would be remiss if I did not recognize what a white, elitist institution the opera is. The truth is, opera is something I can only occasionally enjoy because the price of the tickets are high, and even these prices are greatly reduced by enormous private donations. The extraordinarily wealthy patrons of the arts whose generosity subsidized the price of my ticket are, to judge by the sponsors profiled in the opera’s program, overwhelmingly white: this is an institution that is sustained, enjoyed, and perpetuated largely by upper–middle class and superrich whites. This racial and class divide continues on to the composers and performers: as the San Francisco Chronicle has reported, “The lack of ethnic and gender diversity among performers and even more critically among the composers whose work is represented on the programs of America’s symphony orchestras and opera companies has long been a stigma for classical music—one that neither the San Francisco Symphony nor the San Francisco Opera has remotely dodged.” This is obviously worthy of condemnation, and it must change, but I am cheered by the diversity of people I have seen at the San Francisco Opera audiences this year, as well as the great ethnic and gender diversity of the cast of Girls of the Golden West—dubbed by more than one critic as “the future of opera”—and I hope to see more and more of this diversity in the future of the opera in the Bay Area and nationwide.
As Josefa is being lynched at the end of Adam’s vast monument to the history of America, the action pauses for a moment as this gracious woman spreads her arms magnificently and asks God to forgive those who are murdering her. It is a radical act of empathy that cuts to the core of the community that we must have to endure as a nation, and which is being torn apart right now by animosity. In all frankness, I wish I could muster today the grace that Josefa shows in forgiving the racism and resentment that will soon destroy her; it is not yet a thing I have the capacity for in these dark times, but it is a thing we need and that we must be ready for if we are to climb out of these national depths and become again a nation worthy of the greatness so many claim.
And perhaps this gesture is why I ultimately find the California Gold Rush an inspiration, however unsteady and problematic. Out of this lawlessness, villainy, limitless potential, beauty, murder, courage, cowardice, pillaging, understanding, hatred, hope, ignorance, and genius came one of the most storied and inspiring places on Earth: California, a state that currently stands as a beacon in these days when we have so much reason to doubt the future of our country. It is my home and I have immense pride in it, even though I know intimately many of its damning failures. It is a place that, when I was young, instituted the racist “3 Strikes” law and cut off medical support to undocumented immigrants, but that over my lifetime has attempted to correct many of these terrible mistakes and that has edged more and more toward equality and tolerance.
In a word, it gives me hope, and as this disturbing and terribly painful year draws to a close, I would like to direct your attention to Josefa: well aware that an angry and race-baited mob of white men will soon come to murder her, she calmly attires herself in a rich gown, resplendently braids her hair, adorns herself with magnificent jewels and precious metals. She is noble and magnificent. It is in this form that she meets a mob of ragtag ignorance, calmly beseeching God to grant them grace. In a world that was not yet good enough for someone of her character, she exercised the only choice remaining to her: to die with dignity, making it clear to those who came to murder her that they were killing somebody morally superior to themselves.
I thank Adams for sharing her story at a time when we are perhaps ready for her moral rectitude to at last triumph over those who unjustly ended her life. I reflect on Josefa, and I see that though we are disempowered—though we cannot stop the Republicans from ramming through a disastrous and repugnant giveaway to the superrich, though we cannot make the GOP fund essential health care for impoverished children, and though we cannot prevent Kellyanne Conway on Fox News from slurring Robert Mueller’s investigation of Donald Trump as an “attempted coup”—we do have the power to present a vision of moral superiority for history to remember. And as we fight to resist this awful misrule and reclaim our country, to everybody who is today struggling for the soul of this nation, I think of you with opulence.
You are the greatness of America—you are pristine and gorgeous as you engage in the most important work that anybody can undertake. Be aware, this is not work that will end once this ruinous Presidency is over, nor will it conclude once this feckless Congress has been voted out of office and its inhumane and degrading laws overturned. This is the work of a lifetime. I am here for that struggle, and I hope you are too.
Reading to Fuel the Struggles Ahead
The Shirley Letters from the California Mines, 1851-1852 by Louise Clappe
History Is Our Mother: Three Libretti: Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, The Magic Flute by Alice Goodman
Letters to Memory by Karen Tei Yamashita
Don’t Let Me Be Lonely by Claudia Rankine
About Looking by John Berger
Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño (tr. Chris Andrews)