Cher Public

Word problem

While convalescing from the glanders and mange induced by Peter Sellars’s so-called libretto for Girls of the Golden West, I’ve been picking away yet again at the mysterious symbiosis between an opera’s words and its music. 

John Adams insists Sellars’s words are his inspiration to write the music in the first place, so for him it’s a clear case of prima le parole. Yet Sellars’s parole are largely what killed the show for many of us.

Lisa Hirsch may be on to something in noting that Adams seems to rise to the occasion especially well when he’s setting really fine language that already has some history behind it—though to my ear neither of the Shakespeare settings in Girls comes near the quality of “Batter My Heart” or “The Wound Dresser,” much less “I Am the Wife of Mao Tse-Tung.”

Considering the reported acrimony of the breakup with Alice Goodman, could it be that what now appeals to Adams in Sellars’s bleeding chunks of cadged text is that their writers are dead and can’t talk back? Could it be the sheer, absolute passivity of these words that allows him to find them evocative at this point?

In fact I wonder if the collaboration with Sellars isn’t symptomatic of a certain loss of dramaturgical nerve in general. Both of the Goodman libretti impressively courted controversy by engaging with difficult people and difficult viewpoints – and they’ve taken their lumps for it.

None of the Sellars libretti do anything of the kind: who’s going to be against a slightly different but still reverent view of the Passion? Or in favor of racism, sexism, lynchings, beatings, mutilations, or the atom bomb?

Is it a bug or a feature that all of Adams’s operas except A Flowering Tree have original plots? It’s certainly something that Goodman managed in highly interesting ways, even if Sellars doesn’t. Adams may be handicapping himself by continuing to insist on new plots now that he’s bereft of Goodman’s talents.

Might he be better off with a well-shaped tale that already exists and gives him an emotional map to work from? (Perhaps even, most comfortably, from a long-dead source?) He’d be in excellent company: Beethoven, Berlioz, Verdi, Puccini, Berg…. And it might enable him to recover the dramatic tension that his music works so hard to create these days, and that the words undermine so thoroughly and so often.

It’s true enough that he might want to avoid the baggage that automatically goes with building on a known work. Our own Opera Teen wasn’t the only one to be bothered by the differences between Adès’s Exterminating Angel and its film source. There are even plenty who would still say Verdi’s Otello is inferior to Shakespeare—though on the other hand, Auden famously called The Merry Wives of Windsor a bad play that inspired an operatic masterpiece.

Just to go completely off on this tangent, it would be interesting to know whether anyone was irritated back in the day by the differences between Puccini’s Tosca and Sardou’s play, which after all was a major hit, even if it ultimately cost Bernhardt a leg.

What’s so frustrating is that on those sparse occasions when the Girls libretto calms down and gives him a chance to repeat a few strong words instead of lots of flabby ones, Adams’s expressive powers still seem intact. (The few passages in Spanish and Josefa’s aria especially stood out for me.)

The more I think about it, the more plausible a lack of nerve looks. It can’t be the whole story—composers have always gone to some lengths to hold on to compatible librettists. Whatever the case, what doesn’t look plausible is that the Adams-Sellars marriage is due for a divorce. So I guess those of us who admire the composer’s other work will have to keep sighing for what might have been.

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  • Porgy Amor

    A trenchant piece. I know Girls of the Golden West only through the critical commentary, but I do know the two Adams-Goodman operas well, Adams’s non-Goodman operas less well, and I agree with you on the general merits. I found Kosman’s comment on this matter in his review quite plausible (“Future music historians, I think, will perceive even more clearly than we can today the extent to which Goodman’s retirement from creative activity was a central, defining catastrophe in Adams’ operatic career”).

  • Rowna Sutin

    I have always felt that if the music is good enough, any opera can survive a mediocre libretto, heck, even a bad one. This review plus others I have read seem to indicate that this libretto is so flawed that it has sunk this endeavor; what a shame, since Adam’s music is so accessible, meaning even people like me can appreciate it. Sigh. Thank you Batty for a thoughtful piece on the battle between music and words.

  • RR 4real

    Batty was actually being too kind, I think. I saw this production a week ago, and it’s basically a sung history lesson — and about as engaging. More precisely, it’s a staged oratorio. Sellars takes the concept of found art to its literary extreme in that he just staples a bunch of unrelated historical and/or literary texts together verbatim and calls it a narrative. It reminds me of undergraduates who are either afraid or unable to express things in their own words in their essays, so they insert lengthy quotes from text material instead. After having sat through the opera for over three hours (Act 2 just seems interminable), I’m actually interested in reading The Shirley Letters, on which the libretto is based, and which comprises the bulk of the material; having it sung to me for hours on end, not so much.

    But the problem with this production doesn’t end with the libretto, though it certainly begins there. Sellars’s stage direction is equally offputting. To be fair, he was clearly aiming for a Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, but since the libretto itself already distances the audience so effectively, the stylized stage business unfortunately just leaves you not really caring very much at all about what’s going on on stage. In the end, you can just read the supertitles, because that’s basically all that’s happening — often quite literally. As Dame Shirley in Act 1 describes the surfaces she’s had to sleep on during her travels, supernumeraries dutifully line up one by one to present her with each relevant artifact as she lists it. Later, as she describes the resourceful workarounds she and her doctor husband resorted in order to furnish their makeshift cottage, this time the omnipresent stagehands dressed in black dutifully trot them out one by one in another game of show and sing. It reminded me of Melissa McCarthy’s SNL parody of Sean Spicer’s news briefing object lessons.

    On the other hand, at truly climactic moments, when presumably you’re supposed to be at least minimally interested (?) in what’s going on, the stage business is oddly stylized in opposition to the neverending text. So, for example, when Josepha stabs her (attempted) rapist Joe in the breast, as the libretto informs us, Sellars has J’nai Bridges swipe a stage knife across her attacker’s chest in a sweeping motion a good two to three feet away it, upon which he falls over dead. Josepha’s concomitant lynching consists of Ryan McKinny as Clarence walking on with a detached noose and laying it on a table. At some point during her final aria, Josepha puts it over her head, then takes it off again, and tosses it back on the table (from which it subsequently fell to the floor at the performance I saw, whether intentionally or not). Then a little later, as the chorus of miners sings, she wanders upstage behind them and lies down on her back, and that’s the end of her. That’s literally the climax of the opera.

    More generally, characters just seem to wander on and off stage at random, and the entire opera seems to be a series of static, staged historical tableaux à la Florence Foster Jenkins, or the July 4th tableaux in The Music Man (“One Grecian urn…!”) — and about as exciting.

    This is exacerbated by the set design, which is truly hideous. It literally looks like a low-budget college production (my brother disagreed and said it looked more like a high school production). Again, perhaps intentional estrangement. Fine. But the sequoia stump, apparently inspired by an actual photo of a sequoia felled by miners during the period, and reprinted in the glossy program book, reminded me of The Machine in the Met’s last Ring attempt, as it completely dominates the stage in Act 2. There’s actually a vertical slice of it as well that looms over the action, but I never quite figured out what that was supposed to be. I thought maybe they were trying to show us its concentric tree rings or something (History! “I’ve been here longer than you have!”), but I couldn’t make any out. At any rate, much of the action in the second act takes place atop this stump, which also moves around (again, cf. The Machine) to occupy different massive proportions of the stage surface, forcing all the other action onto the periphery (cf. The Machine). For example, as the riots are being described in song (!), and Josepha has premonitions of her impending fate, huddling in her cottage with her lover Ramón, they are boxed into maybe at best an eight-foot-by-eight-foot space downstage right for what seems like an eternity. While this is going on, the soon-to-be rapist Joe walks around aimlessly in circles on top of the sequoia stump. But eventually four people have to maneuver around each other in this downstage square of space while the stump remains empty. The most annoying thing about the stump is that there’s no way to get on or off the thing, so the stagehands in black have to constantly wheel wooden staircases on and off stage so singers and dancers can get on top of it or off of it. The whole business is so disengaging that you start guessing when the staircase is going to appear again for the next entrance onto or exit from the stump — if somebody’s on it, they have to get off, and aside from one slide down the side of the stump (which was something of an incongruous relief, to be honest) by the attempted rapist Joe late in the opera after he’s completed his requisite number of circles on top of it, everybody else clambers up and down that damn staircase.

    This opera is so — I don’t know how else to put it — boring, that I even noticed the lighting design, which I otherwise never pay any attention to, and it’s also pretty ugly There’s a cheap- and plasticky-looking translucent scrim backdrop, gathered unevenly at the bottom, behind the base of which lies a bank of floodlights (clearly visible from anywhere but the orchestra, I suspect) that backlight it. I only remember seeing them turn red and bright white, but given the 4th of July theme of Act 2, and the literalness of the entire production, I’m sure they must have turned blue at some point as well, but I was probably reading supertitles at the time.

    Don’t get me wrong. I generally like John Adams’s work, and Nixon in China in one of my favorite operas, and one of the better things that even my relatively provincial local opera company has produced. And as Lisa Hirsch pointed out in her review, this cast of singers was uniformly strong, and sang and worked their butts off off to make what they could of this misbegotten mess. I really felt bad for them. The men’s chorus of miners was equally impressive — except when they had to execute Sellars’s absurd stage business, that is. During the mob scene with Josepha, he has them surround her on both sides and do synchronized finger pointing at her in time with the music, like in a gay West Side Story type rumble.

    Standouts for me were Julia Bullock as Dame Shirley and Davóne Tines as Ned Peters, but really, everyone did a great job with what they were handed. In the before performance interview, Peter Sellars singled out Ryan McKinny for praise as a singer who could deal with the complexity of the character of Clarence, but it was a pretty thankless job. Rather than complexity, I would characterize it as inconsistency. It seemed as if every time Sellars needed someone to express a viewpoint that none of the other characters was expressing, he would just stick Clarence with it, as if to say, “Oh, let Clarence say it — Ryan’ll make it work.” So one minute Clarence is holding Ramón at gunpoint so that Joe can proceed with his attempted rape of Josepha, and the next minute he’s grieving her death (after delivering that oddly detached noose). And so it went all evening.

    My overall take was that this opera needed a few months of out-of-town tryouts and a big blue pencil’s worth of enforced cuts — where is Harvey Weinstein when he’s actually needed? You know how they used to tell the designers on Project Runway that they needed to learn how to edit? Well, that. If I had my way I’d lop off a good 45 minutes of this thing.

    Bottom line: my advice is to stay home and read the book. Otherwise you’ll have to listen to them sing the whole thing to you.

  • Christian Ocier

    I watched one of the opera’s performances in San Francisco this past weekend. At its best, Girls provided its main cast a vehicle for showcasing impressive young voices (Julia Bullock and Ryan McKinny were standouts in the cast). When judged as a work of theater, or on its musical merits, the score comes off as variable and dramatically disjointed. I despised the inert and ill-defined first Act, and found the second a mixed affair--rare moments of dramatic (or, dramatic in the sense that something was at least happening onstage) interest awash a in a sea of cringeworthy libretto and unfocused musical writing. Although Adams’s Goodman operas never truly achieved an ideal synthesis between music and drama, the sheer brilliance of his musical inventions at least highlighted some of his creative gifts. Doctor Atomic, years after its premiere also exhibited some redeemable qualities, no doubt helped by the revisions post SFO premiere, and Gerald Finley’s artistry.

    I just can’t understand how anyone could have allowed such a lousy libretto to represent their artistic output. While many composers in the standard canon can have inconsistent libretti, I have never encountered a libretto so pretentious or so incapable of rendering a sense of theater. Sellars’s writing, as mentioned by many reviewers more intimate with Adams’s work, is really just a collection of allusions and quotations from a medley of sources. Where a clever librettist would attempt to integrate these elements into the fabric of the drama, Sellars made no attempt to transform these texts into interactive dialogue. Much of the opera constituted of soliloquy after soliloquy, or letter readings and third person streams of consciousness that never really created a sense of interaction among the cast. The opera to me failed on two fronts: it did more telling than showing, and none of the characters interacted with each other. A shame, since the story’s narrative elements could have provided so much material for character development. I also didn’t care for the characters, and how good is an operatic performance if the characters are so flat and uninspiring?

    Terrible premiere. Hope Adams spends time to revise the opera, as it would be unfortunate to end his contributions to the art form with a work as execrable as this.

  • Dharmabray

    I agree with many comments here having seen the work last week. Act 1 is highly problematic with very little dramatic thrust and while beautiful, the reference to the native people seemed tokenistic given how heavily imported cultures feature in this work. I read somewhere that the treatment of native “Indians” was more pronounced in earlier drafts of the libretto, but really, it’s symbolic of the fact that Sellars tries to stuff too much into the work. I wish he’d focused on one story. There’s just too many words and just too big an agenda being set out.

    Having said that, apart from the Macbeth scenes, I thought Act 2 was far more successful. There are real dramatic punches and an eerie, grotesque build up of the 4 of July scenes and horror of the ensuing violence. The Lola Montez spider dance works really well to reflect this. Adams responds with much more memorable music of great power for his soloists and the chorus.

    At 3 hours, the work could do with some pruning and a refocusing of Act 1. I do think they should rethink the title too. The frivolity of it, and Puccini reference, doesn’t do justice to the intentions of the work.

    Alex Ross in The New Yorker had this to say, and it pretty much accords with my views.

    • Camille

      Thanks for posting this review, too.

      It seems as though Mr Ross says that there could be an opera in all this ( or better still, a Shakespearean opera by Adams ) and that it may be that a re-draft would help?

      The more I read, the muckier this gets. It does seem, all around, that most agree that a number of outstanding performances were given by a number of young artists, so that’s all for the good.

      Question: Why is Peter Sellars allowed to get away with this stuff? It seems sophomoric, at best. Isn’t he best or better as a director?

      Another Question: m.croche and mrsjohnclaggart had a Raging Royal Feud on the pros and cons of Alice Goodman’s libretti, I’m thinking around the time Doctor Atomic was given its prima here at the MET. Does anyone remember all that back and forth tug of war, as they both had a LOT to say on the subject of the Adams libretti. Maybe I’ll try to find it.