In the letters she wrote to her sister during that time, published as The Shirley Letters, she described both the incredible beauty of the California Sierras and the brutality, exuberance and humor in the mining camps.
Librettist and director Peter Sellars and composer John Adams used these letters as the basis of their ambitious new opera, Girls of the Golden West.
The opera, which after its opening run in San Francisco, will move on the Dutch National Opera and Dallas Opera next season, received a large amount of hype.
Both the New York Times and Los Angeles Times called it the most anticipated opera of the year, and Adams was presented with the San Francisco Opera Medal immediately after the opening night performance, the first composer to receive this award.
While the young cast was universally praised, the opera itself received both scathing and rapturous reviews.
The critic ended his review with “‘Girls of the Golden West’ is our state and our country two centuries ago and now. It provides the same penetrating look now that Dame Shirley did then. It needs no defense. Time, if only we will listen, is on its side.”
“It makes me very sad that the prejudices, the fear, the lack of acceptance of one another, and the discrimination—roots of that are ever present from the founding of this country until today,” said soprano Julia Bullock, who sings Dame Shirley’s role. “It’s an ever present reality painful to all Americans.”
Adams, a Berkeley resident, has a cabin in Downieville, a small historic mining town in the Sierras, so he’s very familiar with the area and the history.
Sellars, Adam’s collaborater on Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer, and Doctor Atomic, says they chose the Gold Rush as a subject, because, like Bullock, they found the economic instability and racial inequality during the period so topical.
“Anybody who doesn’t have rent control in San Francisco knows exactly what this is like with the Silicon Valley boom,” Sellars said. “We were totally thinking about the present with what’s going on in this country right now and wild levels of unimaginable wealth for a handful of people and the rest barely hanging on. This piece is totally right now.”
Adams and Sellars decided to tell the story of the Gold Rush through the voices of women—along with Dame Shirley, there is Josefa Segovia, the first and only woman in California to be hanged, and Ah Sing, a Chinese prostitute.
“These letters of Louise Clappe are some of the great California literature of the 19th century,” Sellars said. “It’s great to have a woman who is totally articulate and utterly delightful, and has complete grace and sees everything and there’s no agenda and no finger pointing, and she never loses her cookies.”
When Sellars sent Adams the letters, he “flipped out,” Sellars said. Along with The Shirley Letters, Sellars wrote the libretto using Chilean, Argentinian and Chinese poetry, Mark Twain’s Rouging It (the words a miner sings at the beginning of the opera—“It was a driving vigorous, restless population, not dainty, simpering, kid-gloved weaklings”—come from that text,) as well as Frederick Douglass’ famous speech, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July?”
Excerpts from the 20-page speech make up an aria sung by Dame Shirley’s friend Ned Peters, a former slave who’s now a cowboy.
This aria is powerful for Bullock, and she says she has to work hard not to show her emotions during it.
“The piece is very triggering as a woman and as a person of color who comes from a city that had active segregation,” said Bullock who grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. “At the end of Ned’s main aria, he puts his hands up and he’s held at gunpoint from behind, and that image is very charged. My character says that is was very nearly the cause of the hanging of our friend Ned with no judge and no jury. I have to stay hyper rational to get the lines out—it’s a very real moment.”
Sellars calls Douglass’ speech one of the great moments in American rhetoric and one of the things his proudest of in his life is says making it into an aria, he says.
“It has resonance in the Gold Rush, and it has resonance now,” he said. “Why are prisons filled with people of color? It’s because the same laws are applied differently to white people. Fredrick Douglass could talk about this is 1852 and in 2017.”
Adams has said that he was composing music for the opera during the presidential campaign last year, and sometimes after writing scenes of an angry mob, like the one that hangs Josefa, he would turn on the TV, and see people at Donald Trump rallies chanting, “Lock her up!” directed at Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Again the parallels between now and the Gold Rush 70 years ago are strong, Sellars said.
“There’s a lot of violence in the public sphere right now, and the violence against women is beyond belief,” he said. “There are these angry groups of guys getting together and because they feel bad as a white guy, the rest of the world has to pay. We’re seeing it in Congress, and we’re seeing it in the presidency, and we have to answer back to that stuff.”
J’Nai Bridges, a mezzo-soprano who plays Josefa, the woman hanged by a mob, says she loves working with Adams and Sellars, and she appreciates the collaborators’ willingness to show the ugly side of history.
She says that being in San Francisco, she sees how the Silicon Valley tech boom with its wild expectations and often crushing realities is like a modern day Gold Rush, with a few getting enormously wealthy, pushing out others. Bridges has family in Oakland, and she says increasing housing costs have been squeezing many of them out.
Before she’s hanged, Josefa puts on her finest clothes and jewelry and says she forgives the men who are doing this to her, which Bridges finds powerful. Like Bullock, Bridges says she often got emotional during rehearsals.
“I’m an African American woman and go through things every day, and Josefa was similar to my ancestors, so it felt very real,” she said. “#MeToo and all the sexual harassment was coming out right as we’re enacting that stuff.”