Girls of the Golden West

a new opera by John Adams

libretto compiled from original sources by Peter Sellars

Girls of the Golden West takes place in mining camps in the Sierra Mountains during the California Gold Rush of the early 1850’s. The libretto texts are drawn from first hand accounts by Mark Twain, newspaper articles, letters, journals, original Gold Rush song lyrics and political speeches and slogans.


“Dame Shirley” pen name of Louise Smith Clappe (soprano). Arrives in California from Massachusetts with her young physician husband. After a short stay in San Francisco the couple has traveled to the Sierra Mountains to live in Rich Bar, a mining camp on the Feather River.

Joe Cannon: a miner (baritone)

Clarence: a miner and friend of Joe Cannon (baritone)

Ah Sing: a Chinese prostitute (coloratura soprano)

Josefa Segovia: a young Mexican woman who works in the bar room of the Empire Hotel in Rich Bar (mezzo soprano)

Ramón: a Mexican card dealer and bartender at the Empire (baritone)

Lola Montez: (role for a dancer)

Male Chorus of miners

Dancers and supernumeraries as other miners, cowboys, Chinese, Chilean and Mexican workers and California Indians.



Act I

Scene 1: On the Road to the Sierra The hard-luck miner Clarence epitomizes the “driving, vigorous, restless population” of young men in the Gold Country. Recently arrived from New England, Dame Shirley rides a mule on her way to Rich Bar with her husband Fayette. She is an enthralled and astute observer of landscapes and people, and one of the rare women in these parts. After falling off her mule, she transfers to a wagon driven by the fugitive slave Ned Peters, now a Black cowboy moving west.

Scene 2: Rich Bar At the bar of the Empire Hotel, the miner Joe Cannon sings to his drinking pals the story of his girlfriend in Missouri, who promised to marry him if he’d first go to California and strike it rich but who while he was away married a butcher with red hair.

Josefa, a young Mexican who works the bar, and Ah Sing, a vivacious young Chinese prostitute, voice a more sober view of life. Joe romances Ah Sing with a corny old song. She sizes him up and decides he is the perfect man to help her realize her future ambitions. Panicking in the face of her expectations, Joe runs out into the night.

Scene 3: Late Night at the Empire The miners are addicted to gambling, making fortunes, and hopelessly ruining themselves, night after night. Ramón and Josefa work the tables. He deals, she is there to attract the crowd: “Without a girl, there can be no hotel, without a beautiful one, there can be no business.”

Joe is a particularly drunk, aggressive customer and his crude advances towards Josefa trigger an ugly incident. Josefa and Ramón remember an afternoon far outside the city when their love was dangerous, fresh, and unobserved.

Scene 5: Coronation Dinner Shirley describes her tiny, primitive log cabin, royally appointed with discarded cans, bottles, boards, and claret cases. Ah Sing appears in a new dress, in a new apartment.

When she was a little girl, she was sold for $10, and now she has bought her freedom for $700. Joe, her dream husband, will make a future possible. Ned prepares a “coronation dinner” for Shirley, “the Queen.” Shirley is overwhelmed with the stature and bearing of this profound and beautiful man. Suddenly Clarence, Joe and a mob of miners appear, all of them agitated and bent on “chastising some Indians” to avenge the murder of a white man. Joe vows “We’re going to kill the whole tribe.”

Act II

Scene 1: The Raven Himself The Fourth of July in Downieville begins with the miners performing Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the role of Lady Macbeth assayed by Dame Shirley herself.

Money rains upon the stage as miners throw nuggets and gold dust. An Independence Day fandango cloaks the plot of white miners to massacre large numbers of Mexicans, Chileans, and Peruvians. Many Mexicans have already left town, giving up their claims. This is California, “a land made up of strange things, of random luck, and cruel magic.”

Scene 2: Pogrom As screams are heard from Mexicans being clubbed and robbed by Americans, Ah Sing steps up to the holiday stage to sing her ballad.

She has come to America looking for a rich husband, and is determined to one day save enough money to buy a farm. Joe Cannon is proud to be openly acknowledged as her secret husband, but is then suddenly afraid. As Joe escapes, the angry crowd turns on Ah Sing and her Asian friends, yelling, “Get out, yellowskins, get out.” Clarence tries to defuse the crisis, presenting the glamorous and shameless dancer Lola Montez, performing her notorious “Spider Dance.”

Scene 3: The Whipping Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger I see before me?” soliloquy becomes a vivid reality for Clarence, as he contemplates senseless murder he is being drawn into. Josefa can hear cries and shouts outside her cabin. A group of Chileans, their heads shaved and their ears cut off, are whipped by vigilantes. Dame Shirley is repulsed by the violence. Ned, in indignation and righteous fury, rises up to address the mob.

Scene 4: The Stabbing Ned barely escapes the fury of the mob, leaving a distraught Dame Shirley to lament the loss of her only true friend, whose beautiful voice will never be heard again in these mountains. Josefa asks her lover Ramón to stay with her. She feels the weight of the world on her heart, a world that is exploding around her. She knows she and Ramón are targets, and that she will not live long. Ramón asks her to marry him. Josefa repeats over and over to Ramón that she is not allowed to cry. Her father and grandfather never cried. Joe Cannon arrives, drunk and lost in the dark. Ah Sing is out in the night, looking for him. Joe, fully armed, rips through the cloth door of Ramón and Josefa’s cabin and drags Josefa away. He tries to rape her. Locked in a violent struggle, Josefa stabs him with his own knife, killing him.

Scene 5: The Hanging A mob gathers around Josefa’s cabin. She faces them, calm, dignified, beautifully dressed, wearing her finest jewelry. At her hasty trial, no one speaks up to defend her. She asks God to forgive her persecutors. She is condemned to death. The entire town is present for the lynching.

Epilogue On her last day at Rich Bar, Dame Shirley surveys the detritus of sardine cans, jars, and broken bottles that line the river- banks, all dusted with a light covering of snow. She lifts her eyes to behold the purple beauty and majesty of the old mountains and “the wonderful and never-enough-to-be-talked-about sky of California” which “drops down upon the whole in fathomless splendor.”