To Italy and Back Again: A Tale of Two Grand Operas Set in the Sierra

As a fan, partaker, and participant in opera, it never occurred to me that moving to the Sierra Nevada would land me in the very landscapes, towns, and stories that inspired some of opera’s most influential works of art. Join me downstage as I dive into past and present of the arts that brought visions of America’s wild west to the world. 

COMM PB Blog Image 2019 03On July 25th, 1853, David Belasco was born in San Francisco to Abraham H. Belasco and Reyna Belasco, who had moved from London during the California Gold Rush. This young Belasco would choose the theater as his profession, and spent the early years of his career working in theaters in San Francisco and Virginia City, Nevada, all the while observing the people and culture of the late-nineteenth-century west. Of Virginia City, he said: [I saw] “more reckless women and desperadoes to the square foot…than anywhere else in the world.” Whether this description is fair may be the subject of debate, but what is certain is that Belasco brought his ideas about the “wild west” to stages across the world: by age 29, he had moved to New York City, from which place he was able to bring his image of western life to the masses.

In 1905, his play The Girl of the Golden West was given its debut at the Belasco Theater, where it ran for 224 performances. This shameless melodrama, which takes place in the mountains of California during the Gold Rush, tells the story of a frontier woman who falls in love with a Mexican bandit disguised as a mere stranger. It includes all of the stereotypes that would later develop into classic “wild west” tropes: the sensible woman who owns the saloon, the cheating card-shark, the Wells Fargo agent, the alluring outlaw, the Native American character in servitude to a main character, and, of course, the jealous sheriff. Many of these portrayals were largely inaccurate, and some of them downright racist, but to the audiences of New York, this was reality. The play was adapted several times, including into a novel by Belasco himself, as well as four films spanning three decades. By far its most influential iteration, however, was created by none other than the father of La Bohème, Turandot, and Tosca: the italian opera composer Giacomo Puccini.

If Belasco had brought the drama of the California mountains to New York, Puccini brought it to the world. On December 10, 1910, La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the West) debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, under the baton of legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, with star tenor Enrico Caruso as the male lead. Soon thereafter, the opera was staged at the Covent Garden Theatre in London, Teatro Costanzi in Rome, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne, and notably at the Deutsches Opernhaus in Berlin, where it enjoyed a triumphant reception. 

It was in this distinctly Italianate adaptation of Belasco’s play that opera audiences across the globe were first introduced to the “Cloudy Mountains” and the “Great Forest” of California, and for many of them, it was likely the first they’d heard of several now-familiar locations. As the leading man, Dick Johnson, takes the stage, he declares: “sono di Sacramento” (“I am from Sacramento”), before taking his seat at the mining camp saloon. Places such as Monterey and San Francisco are also mentioned in the Italian libretto (written by Guelfo Civinini and Carlo Zangarini), although the action itself is never given a more precise location than the “Cloudy Mountains” or “Great California Forest.” In 1910, there were still relatively few people who had direct experience with the American far west, and Puccini’s depiction of hard-scrabble California life became the lens through which many people viewed the region. 

La Fanciulla del West presents a highly romanticized picture of life in the Sierra. Set in the years 1849 and 1850 at a mining camp in the foothills of the “Cloudy Mountains,” it is plainly meant to capture the drama of the California Gold Rush era. The opera opens with a “polka” danced by the miners in the saloon, the near murder and subsequent public humiliation of a cheater at poker, and the arrival of the mysterious stranger, Dick Johnson from Sacramento (spoilers ahead). Dick proceeds to woo the heartthrob barkeeper, Minnie, earning him the ire of the jealous local sheriff. As the drama develops, Dick is revealed to be the Mexican bandit Ramerrez and is shot by a posse of locals, only to have Minnie beg her neighbors to spare his life. She ultimately prevails in saving him, twice. In act two she buys him his freedom by betting his life on a poker game with the sheriff and winning, albeit by cheating; in the third and final act, after Dick is captured a second time, she throws herself in front of the gallows to prevent his being hanged, and begs the miners for his life. In typical Italian fashion, the show ends with the two lovers riding off to start a new life together, accompanied by a chorus of miners who are sad to see Minnie leave. It is no surprise that La Fanciulla del West is considered by some to be the first “spaghetti western.”

la fanciulla westThe influence that this work, in league with similar plays and novels from the same period, had on perceptions of the west is familiar to most movie-going audiences. From John Wayne to Mel Brooks, actors and screenwriters of all stripes and intentions have played up the familiar stereotypes of western heroes, heartthrobs and bandits, to the delight of audiences but, in many cases, the detriment of history. In recent years, however, some more daring artists have begun to provide more realistic depictions of life during the Gold Rush. 

One notable such instance is the opera Girls of the Golden West, composed by John Adams to a libretto by Peter Sellars. First performed at the San Francisco Opera in 2017, this work aims to give a voice to the real inhabitants of the 1850’s Sierra; it takes as a premise that the actual events of the period are easily as dramatic as any romanticized portrayal, and far more relevant to the lives of modern audiences. The name of this new opera is no mistake: writer and director Peter Sellars first conceived the English libretto while doing research for a production of La Fanciulla del West at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. Sellars was struck both by the sugar-coated nature of Puccini’s portrayal of the west, and by the drama of the actual stories on which it was ultimately based. According to Sellars: “These true stories of the Forty-Niners are overwhelming in their heroism, passion and cruelty, telling tales of racial conflicts, colorful and humorous exploits, political strife and struggles to build anew a life and to decide what it would mean to be American.”

Unlike Puccini’s work, which is based completely in fiction, Girls of the Golden West draws its inspiration, and much of its text, from the letters of Louise Clappe, a 32-year old New Englander who lived from 1851 to 1852 in the town of Rich Bar (now Diamondville), as well as other literature from the period: newspaper articles, miners’ diaries, original Gold Rush song lyrics, and the writings of Mark Twain. Many of Ms. Clappe’s words are included directly in the libretto, such as her observation of the “never-enough-to-be-talked-about sky of California… like an immense concave of pure sapphire.” Of this text, the composer admitted, “it gives me goose pimples. It’s such beautiful language.” Adams’ and Sellars’ composition takes into account many crucial parts of the old western experience that have largely been left out of theatrical and cinematic depictions over the last century: the incredible diversity of race and nationality among the forty-niners is given center-stage, along with themes of strife and heinous violence that are difficult to represent in “family-friendly” stories of the wild west.

In further contrast to its Italian counterpart, Girls of the Golden West does not depend on an extreme sense of “narrative completeness”, according to which all of the loose ends of the tale must be wrapped up in preparation for a perfect ending. The tale is woven out of several distinct stories, and the way that they interact with and lead into each other is representative of the way that real people fall into, as well as out of, each other’s lives. Indeed, it is not as easy to label someone as the “main character” as it is in more “traditional” wild west stories: the personalities portrayed are given relatively even importance. The themes depicted are almost as diverse as the characters, and range from the usual topics of drunkenness and romance to such dark subjects as mass murder and rape, all played out under the ever-present cloud of racism. Adams and Sellars also made sure to ground their story securely in actual locations; while Puccini’s narrative takes place in the “Cloudy Mountains” and “Great Forest” of California, Adams and Sellars set their action in the very real and distinct towns of Rich Bar and Downieville. Although the Adams opera is ultimately a fictional tale, its foundation in actual places and events gives modern audiences a rare window into the true drama of life in the 1850’s Sierra.

Although many residents of the Sierra have a direct connection to the places and events of the Gold Rush, our perceptions of the period are still largely shaped by artistic representations. After all, no source is truly objective, and our relationship to history is ultimately determined by the stories we tell about it. As Jerry Brown recently said of his tenure as governor: “I don’t think governors make much history… poets maybe.” Puccini, ever the poet at heart, used his platform and artistic prowess to share with the world his vision of the west, and the world listened. Despite the historical dubiousness of La Fanciulla del West, we may still owe him a debt of gratitude for his service to the region: after all, it certainly got people interested in California. More than a century later, however, John Adams and Peter Sellars saw a need to amend the story and bring it back to its roots. If Puccini’s legacy is any example, there’s no telling the effect that this new work could have on our view of the region, and our place in it, for years to come.