Artist Of The Week: John Adams Adds Another Opera To His Historic Legacy

By Francisco Salazar

This week, John Adams fifth opera “Girls of the Golden West” makes its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera. The premiere will mark the second time one of Adams’ operas opens at the company.

The new work is inspired by the 1851/1852 letters of Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe who lived for a year and a half in the mining settlement of Rich Bar during the California Gold Rush period. The libretto is also sourced from other literature of the period, including a newspaper article and other writings from Mark Twain. With the premiere, it also marks the sixth time the legendary composer collaborates with Peter Sellars. To commemorate his work let’s take a look at some of his other operas.

“Nixon in China”

In 1987 Adams’ first opera premiered at the Houston Grand Opera and the work received mixed reviews. Critics believed the opera would disappear quickly but has since premiered in Europe and North America. It was recently showcased at the Metropolitan Opera and was even released on DVD. There are also numerous CD recordings, including one with the Orchestra of St. Lukes and another with the Colorado Symphony. It also marked his first collaboration with Sellars.

“The Death of Klinghoffer”

Adams’ second opera, which was also a collaboration with Sellars, proved to be his most controversial when it premiered in 1991 at La Monnaie. The opera went on to have premieres in Lyon and was followed by a performance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The opera has since been performed at Opera Saint Louis as well as with the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Finnish National Opera. It was famously given at the Metropolitan Opera where protests were staged and a planned HD transmission was canceled. To this date, there is a DVD available for the opera but it still remains rarely performed.

“I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky” & “El Niño” 

Following “Death of Klinghoffer” Adams composed a Songbook which was dedicated to the aftermath of the 1994 Earthquake in Los Angeles and an oratorio in 2000 which premiered at the Théâtre du Chatelet. “El Niño” is available on DVD and CD while “I Was Looking at the Ceiling and The I Saw the Sky” is still rare.

“Doctor Atomic”

In 2005 Adams and Sellars collaborated on the stress and anxiety experienced by those who tested the first Atomic Bomb. The opera premiered at the San Francisco Opera and was followed by premieres at the Netherland Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and at the Metropolitan Opera. Two DVD recordings are available with Gerald Finley in the lead role.

“A Flowering Tree”

This rarely performed work marked the fourth collaboration between Sellars and Adams. The opera has its world premiere in 2006 at the MuseumsQuartier Halle E in Vienna with Eric Owens and Russell Thomas. A production was featured at the Opera Omaha in 2015 and there is a recording available on Nonesuch with the original cast,

The Gospel According to the Other Mary”

This final Opera/oratorio had its world premiere in 2012 under Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Orchestra and was later performed in a staged production in 2013. The opera was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize.


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