5 Things You Should Know Before Seeing Girls of the Golden West

Enhance Your Girls of the Golden West Experience

San Francisco Opera is presenting their world premiere of Girls of the Golden West in late November. Lucky for us, we got to attend one of their final dress rehearsals and watch the magic of John Adams and Peter Sellars on stage before the “official” curtain opens. Without giving any major spoilers, we thought we’d give you 5 facts that will help enhance your opera experience before you see it for yourself.

San Francisco Opera

1. The Girls of the Golden West is based on a true story.

The opera was based on The Shirley Letters by stoic “Dame Shirley” (AKA: Louise Amela Kapp Smith Clappe) during the Gold Rush in the early 1850’s. At only 31, college educated Dame Shirley left Massachusetts for a new adventure in California during one of the largest migrations in American history. She wrote about her life experiences in San Francisco and what it was like living in desolate mining communities along the Feather River for women (only 3% of California’s non-native population was female), miners, and foreigners.

Addict Insider: This opera also tells the true story of Josefa Loazia who was the first and only woman to be hung in California. She was found guilty of murdering Frederick Cannon, who attempted to assault her but because of her ethnicity, she was not given a fair trial.

San Francisco Opera

2. This opera has a lot of parallels to Silicon Valley. 

One of the reasons John Adams and Peter Sellars wanted to create this opera is because of the unique parallels between the gold rush and Silicon Valley’s tech boom. Like the miners, many people moved to the Bay Area to “strike gold” and make a name for themselves. But even though it has been over 165 years since the gold rush, we still face some of the same issues, like racial inequality, sexism, and prejudices. During the second act, hold on to your hats, because Ned Peters (a former slave character in Girls of the Golden West) sings an aria that will shake you to your core.

Addict Insider: Peter Sellars and John Adams asked Devóne Tines to play Ned Peters’ role over three years ago and his groundbreaking aria was specifically created and composed for his voice! Ned Peters’ character is also based on a real person and out of the cast, he is the best dressed by far (as you can see above)! Ned was a free black cowboy who worked hard and was well traveled.

San Francisco Opera

3. This production is not super “flashy” to the eyes and we think it’s because it’s a memoir of memories.

Peter Sellars and David Gropman created the stage to have a raw and minimalistic look. Instead of seeing a ton of props, mechanics, and drapery you are prompted to use your imagination. If you think back to a memory, only a few moments will pop up in your mind with elaborate details so there are a lot of points in this opera that are simple and bare. The other little details are left up to you to fill in with your imagination. There are also props of irony to look out for like solo cups, a rolling mule, and plastic foldup chairs.

Peter Sellars used a unique approach to staging that is known as the “distancing effect”. It is best known to intentionally keep an audience from totally being enthralled into the “entertainment” of a production. (That’s why the backstage is viewable, you can clearly see the stage crew moving about and the use of ironic props.) Because of this effect, you’ll find yourself not getting lost in the fluff but really digging in and reflecting on the underlying message of the opera.

Girls of the Golden West

4. The music was based on traditional Californian miner songs. 

“There are archives of the songs that were sung during this era,” says John Adams. “The text was actually set to familiar songs like Oh, Susanna or Pop Goes the Weezle but I took the text from these songs and made up my own melodies.” Some of the stories from miner ballads are even woven within the storyline of Girls of the Golden West. “This is actually what people said and did,” says Peter Sellars, “which is very sobering, powerful and moving.”

After the hanging of Josepha, John Adams even took an original upbeat miner song called “Lousy Miner” and morphed it into an eerie and terrifying song. It was like listening to a broken jewelry box that once played beautiful music but now churned out a ghostly and sinister tune. Although the text and language of these songs are lyrical, they are paired with raw and minimalistic music. “These people’s lives were harsh and their emotions were raw,” says John Adams. “I just couldn’t imagine making a flourish and exotic score. I wanted to make something that had that same kind of impact.” Adams even added a guitar and accordion in the orchestra to give his music a rustic sound.

Addict Insider: Girls of the Golden West is the first time that the gold rush has not been treated as “happy musical” or told with a basic and lighthearted storyline. There are over a thousand emotions in every piece, which is uniquely represented throughout John Adams and Peter Sellars’ opera.

5.  The large tree stump used in the set is based on a real tree stump found in Calaveras Big Tree State Park, near Yosemite.

When the miners arrived, the luscious landscape was soon denuded and the rushing rivers were silted up from all of the hydraulic mining. One tree, in particular, was so large that they decided to cut it down to make a stage for touring shows.

“These mining towns did have a lot of money, ” says Peter Sellars. “While there was a shocking level of depraved poverty, there was also the rags-to-riches population that was drinking champaign from Paris every night and seeing the great American theater companies that toured the mining camps.” Lola Montez even came through (as shown above) to perform her famous Spider Dance.

Addict Insider: Lola Montez (AKA: Maria Eliza Dolores Rosanna Gilbert) was an Irish dancer and actress who entertained miners. One of her famous routines was the Spider Dance, which was a striptease that she performed all over the world. She would act as if spiders were crawling up her petticoat, so she would raise her dress higher and higher giving the audience a peep show.


Girls of the Golden West will only be performed eight times by the San Francisco Opera at War Memorial Hall, so make sure to grab your tickets while you can!

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*Photography by Stefan Cohen during the piano dress rehearsal.

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Parker Coomans

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