Gold Rush Opera

While Thanksgiving remains a quintessential native saga for most Americans, here in California we have a distinctly different perspective.


Published: November, 2017


While Thanksgiving remains a quintessential native saga for most Americans, here in California we have a distinctly different perspective.


This should be highly evident when John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West receives its world premiere at the War Memorial Opera House on November 21. With a libretto drawn from historical sources by director Peter Sellars, this new work from the composer of Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic explores the true and often brutal stories of pioneers on California’s Gold Rush frontier.        


And before the production gets underway, SFO company dramaturg Kip Cranna will give a series of preview lectures. In this exclusive interview with Bay Crossings, he expounds upon his role.


Bay Crossings: Can you tell us how your duties as dramaturg differ from the traditional job description?


Kip Cranna: In European opera companies a dramaturg usually comes from a theater background and deals with production-related issues like staging concepts. I’m a musicologist by background, so I rarely get involved with staging issues, but instead I work on the musical side of things and act as the “musicologist in residence” and as a resource for questions about the actual musical score. I also do a lot of teaching, writing and public speaking.


BC: Your work on the Moby Dick commission brought seafaring alive for our readers. How will the company do the same thing with Girls of the Golden West?


Cranna: Moby Dick of course dealt with the adventures of men at sea on a whaling ship. Girls of the Golden West deals with different adventures and is based on the real-life situations of women braving the harsh conditions and experiencing the wild excitement of the California Gold Rush.


BC: If it’s not too far a stretch, one might note that Red Chamber also spoke to waterfront culture? Any thoughts about that?


Cranna: Dream of the Red Chamber was based on a classic Chinese novel from the 18th century. In our beautiful production, we saw the orphaned heroine arrive to live with her wealthy new family by gliding across a lake on an elegant barge.


BC: How do you keep publishers on deadline? What if someone fails to deliver?


Cranna: Managing the nuts and bolts of a newly-commissioned opera is a big part of my job. Composers sometimes fall behind schedule, so I work with their publishers to be sure the singers can get enough musical score material to learn their parts. Unlike the theater world where actors convene and learn their roles together, opera singers are expected to show up on the first day knowing their roles cold.


BC: What were the most important lessons learned when researching this subject?


Cranna: I’ve learned that what most people know about the California Gold Rush is romanticized and to some extent glamorized fantasy. Girls of the Golden West goes beyond the Spaghetti Western to explore real-life people from the Gold Rush days and their actual struggles, conflicts and exploits.


BC: Any startling discoveries?


Cranna: I learned that the burning question “what does it mean to be an American?” was as hot a topic in the 1850s as it is now.


BC: What were the main challenges in the creative process?


Cranna: In this opera, the main challenges will be musical. John Adams’ music is ebulliently rhythmic and energetic, but also very difficult, especially for the chorus. Just memorizing his tricky rhythmic patterns is both a challenge and a thrill, and the opera will convey an excitement that I know the audience will sense immediately.


BC: How are the principal performers preparing for various roles? Some must be more difficult than others. Can you describe the preparation for us?


Cranna: The opera doesn’t open until late November, but we had an early rehearsal week in August so that the singers could get acquainted with their musical roles, which are highly differentiated. Among our characters we have a highly educated New England woman, Dame Shirley, as our main eyewitness to the Gold Rush adventure, but we also have a Chinese prostitute (a high coloratura part), a Mexican bar maid (who sings in Spanish poetry), and the famous dancer Lola Montez (a role for a solo dancer). These are the Girls of the Golden West, each very different from the others.


BC: Finally, how should the audience prepare? Your lectures, of course, are always a good start.


Cranna: Any background information about the California Gold Rush you can put your hands on will be valuable. The letters of Dame Shirley, our main character, are a great resource. Google “the Shirley letters” and you will see what I mean. Mark Twain’s Roughing It is another great read.


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