Although written by two men, “Girls of the Golden West” is centered around the lives of the hardy women of Rich Bar (a mining camp in the Sierra mountains) and Downieville, California in the early 1850s. Throughout the Works and Process presentation at the Guggenheim on Sept. 21, John Adams (composer) and Peter Sellars (librettist/director) made it clear that this opera was not your stereotypical Gold Rush story about rough-and-tumble white men that we’ve come to expect. “This is not Paint Your Wagon,” Sellars declared. Without further ado, let us briefly introduce the four main women in this fresh telling of a neglected facet of history: women’s lives.
1. Dame Shirley, played by Julia Bullock
The story and text of the opera come from multiple primary sources, and draw heavily from a series of 23 letters Dame Shirley (a pseudonym; her real name was Louise Clappe) wrote to her sister while living in Downieville, aptly titled “The Shirley Letters.” Originally from the East coast, she was a well-educated woman and expressive writer, and, in Adams’ words at the preview, “was not impressed by these blowhards” after living among the miners. Adams concluded his description of her with a shrug and laugh, saying, “I’m in love with this woman.
2. Josefa Segovia, played by J’Nai Bridges
Not much is known about Mexican-American immigrant Josefa Segovia; many contemporary references are third-hand from newspaper accounts of her death. In the opera, she is capable, hardworking, and loving, and works at the Empire Hotel bar alongside Ramòn, her secret boyfriend. She sings in both English and Spanish; the text of the love song Bridges performed at the preview was from the poetry of Alfonsina Storni, an Argentine poetess.
3. Ah Sing, played by Hye Jung Lee
Ah Sing is a Chinese-American sex slave who dreams of buying her freedom and eventually her own farm. Her text is comprised entirely of Chinese poetry (translated to English) from the walls of the detention center at Angel Island where Chinese immigrants were held, interrogated, and processed before being allowed to enter the US. She has a love interest, and eventually an ally, in the character of Joe Cannon, a miner.
4. Lola Montez, played by Lorena Feijóo
The role of Lola Montez is for a dancer. Lola was a celebrity and entertainer with a colorful life filled with travel, cutting-edge art, and scandalous love affairs. As Sellars put it, “if she had lived at the same time as Andy Warhol, she would have hung out with that crowd.” She was famous for her “Spider Dance,” which is reimagined with choreography by John Heginbotham in the July 4 scene in Act 2, with Adams saying at the preview, “this is my seven veils dance.”
Sellars and Adams have made a particular effort in this collaboration to highlight the international, multi-ethnic, and multicultural experience of the Gold Rush, a reality which is sadly overlooked in historical records (and modern pop culture views) of that period. People came from all over the world to seek their fortune. Throughout the costume portion of the Works and Process preview, the photos from which the team drew design inspiration featured a wide range of ethnicities, from black cowboys to Chinese sex slaves, from Chilean and Mexican vaqueros to the plaid- and denim-decked white men with whom we are already familiar. Aristocratic Californios made an appearance, and photos of Dame Shirley herself. Sellars pointed out that the opera, set in 1852, coincides with a massive genocide of Native Americans in the area — settlers would go out and shoot Native Americans “for fun.” Not shying away from racial tensions, this culturally diverse and woman-centric opera opens Nov. 21 for a run of 8 performances at the San Francisco Opera.