Girls of the Golden West
a new opera by John Adams
libretto compiled from original sources by Peter Sellars
“There should be no doubt that ‘Girls of the Golden West’ is the most powerful opera of the moment.” —Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times
“… music [that is] eerily lustrous, like a precious metal worth killing for.” —Joshua Barone, The New York Times
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 4: Coronation Dinner. Joe and Clarence are feeling bullish, singing a song to help restore their virile pride: “Give me a man that’s all a man, who stands up straight and strong. A blessed thing in anybody is bone, backbone!”
Dame Shirley, alone in her cabin while her husband is away caring for a badly injured miner, receives a visit from Ned who reveals that he was a fugitive slave.
Ah Sing appears in a new dress in a new apartment. When she was a little girl, she was sold for a mere $10. Now she has bought her freedom for $700. Joe and she confess their love for each other. She hopes to marry him.
Ned has prepared a lavish dinner for her, his “Queen” of Rich Bar. He serves her and sings a quiet, intimate statement of his beliefs.
Joe, Clarence and a band of violent miners suddenly interrupt the dinner. They are recruiting men to go out and “chastise” some local Indians in response to the murder of one of their miner buddies. They describe a massacre they’ve already participated in: “a half dozen bucks, some squaws, some children. There was no resistance.” They burnt the houses and the bodies.
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.”
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.”
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.”