In 2021, an Oregon Trail-set miniseries called 1883 broke CBS’s cable premiere records with 4.9 million viewers and its streaming premiere records for Paramount+. The show offers a look at the extreme hardship faced by homesteaders, who (spoiler warning!) almost all die before the end of the series, whether from disease, bandits, or conflict with Native Americans.

Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are the stars, along with Sam Elliot. 1883 feels almost like an antique, a call-back to a time in which these stories were told with nary a hint of irony, but here it is, part of a television empire and inspiring more spin-offs.

Clearly, the narrative of homesteaders, wagon trains, and cowboys holds lasting appeal into the second decade of this century. Even an American Dream beset by death can still promise the slim chance of success. In fact, that’s part of its insidiousness—failure can always be blamed on the individual, as long any there are any success stories at all. We may think we are past this particular American fable, but its power has not left it entirely.

It’s almost impossible to underestimate how the deep the imagery of infinite beginnings is rooted the American psyche; even now, after countless and increasingly spectacular failures of the American dream revealed its foundations to be built on nothing but dusty winds, the imagery of the American west retains its promise of beginning, setting off, expanding: that wide sky, that endless grass sea with wagons dotting its waves, that sense of possibility, have a sticky quality to them still, haunting our minds.

Missy Mazzoli’s Proving Up, which premiered in 2018 and which is now revived by Juilliard, serves to raise this particularly American ghost but never to exorcise it. Here, there are no infinite beginnings; only interminable, terrifying middles, ghosts collapsing the timeline into an extended scream. Proving Up conceives the American Dream as a ghost-making project, one which alienates the homesteaders from one another and from their humanity.

The relentless desire to “prove up” their land, to make themselves legible to Washington’s distant bureaucracy who will determine whether they keep their homestead (most individual homesteads failed, and the successful ones were often those secretly owned by large cattle ranches) makes the characters ghosts to themselves. In so doing, it subtly nods to the central present absence of all Western narratives—the murder and displacement of the indigenous peoples who once lived on all this land.

The characters, a family of German immigrants the Zegners, obsessively run through their requirements—five years of harvest, a sod house, a glass window. They nearly have them all, or so they think. The window is central to the drama. It’s revealed early on that Johannes “Pa” Zegner stole it from a neighboring family after coming upon them all mysteriously dead, not long after they proved up. Pa is generous enough to loan the window to another family, sending their youngest son Miles to deliver it in a task beset by hostile land and malevolent spirits. The window does not make it home, and Miles may not either.

In Juilliard’s production, directed by Mary Birnbaum, the audience became the Nebraska landscape itself. Sat facing one another, surrounded by both the Juilliard orchestra and by Kristen Robinson’s suggestive sets, which included wagon wheels and other homestead furniture suspended from the ceiling and walls taken up by a series of paintings of the blue-grey prairie grass, we became its stalks, blown back and forth by the wind.

At times, we closed in on the actors. They could not escape our presence, our bodies forcing them into sometimes into the center, sometimes out into the margins of the room. In other moments, they surrounded us, slithering behind and around to trap us and almost deafening us with the power of their singing. It was powerful and disorienting in equal measure, and a perfect match for Mazzoli’s sinister, haunting score and Royce Vavrek’s stark and evocative text.

Birnbaum strikingly captured the oscillation between claustrophobia and agoraphobia that defines the homesteader landscape; its horror lies in that the prairie is both too closed and too open, both infinite and inescapable. Most of all, however, this configuration made the audience complicit in the narrative, in the way all non-native Americans were and are still complicit in the destruction and erasure of native lands and peoples, but also powerless to stop the action.

Birnbaum also was able to wring every drop of emotion from her singers, who were uniformly excellent. Tenor Andrew Turner, as Miles, brought a tender, tenuous innocence to his young character, but his voice was well-honed and powerful, with a balance of spin and steely control.

In contrast, as his eventual nemesis The Sodbuster, baritone Joseph Parrish was all silky snarls, his dark eyes at first aglow with sweetness that quickly curdled into something acrid as his monstrous nature was slowly revealed. Parrish displayed a painterly touch on his instrument; the ability to effortlessly slide from laugh to hiss to growl and back to rich singing. This lightness and ease served only to make him more otherworldly. In their climactic final scene, Turner and Parrish were simply riveting.

As moral center and haunted mother Ma Zegner, soprano Julia Stuart revealed a seemingly limitless supply of raw and electrifying vocal power— the word that keeps returning to me is “fervent,” for both her singing and her characterization. Driven nearly mad by the ghosts of her dead daughters, waiting for a drop of God’s rain, praying, and then losing her faith entirely by the opera’s end, Stuart seemed nearly to be tearing herself apart at the seams while retaining the ramrod-straight spinal posture one sees in daguerreotypes.

Pa Zegner was played baritone Trevor Haumschilt with a tempestuous, rich voice and eyes glinting a hair too brightly to seem fully sane. Haumschilt knows perfectly how to use the double-edge of his height, appearing nearly cuddly at time but more often looming and menacing over his fellow actors. Pa Zegner, it seemed, could snap into violence at any moment, power coiled with in his frame only partly dulled by drinking.

As the dead Zegner daughters, soprano Georgiana Adams and mezzo Mary Beth Nelson, were in turns taunting and terrifying, matching and sometimes even exceeding the power of their living counterparts. They had much to do— slinking around, playing the harmonica, putting on a creepily wonderful little puppet show, singing in gorgeous, twisted harmonies—and throughout each brought a staggering, nearly room-shaking power and sinister presence (especially Ms. Adams, whose lush soprano had the force of a battering ram wrapped in satin).

Bass-baritone Nazrin Alyman, in a nearly silent role, rounded out the cast as eldest son, Peter Zegner, who set the tone of the opera in an early scene by emerging covered in blood, shaking and speechless.

As Proving Up well knows, bad dreams will do that to you.

The final performance of Proving Up will be streamed live today starting at 2:00 PM.