Yesterday afternoon I returned to the War Memorial Opera House for a second viewing of the San Francisco Opera presentation of John Adams’ new opera Girls of the Golden West. Over the course of the week that followed my attending the world premiere of this opera, I found myself giving a lot of thought to the composer’s track record in the domain of setting text. I recalled that in his essays for The John Adams Earbox, he described “Harmonium” (the first three tracks of the first CD in the collection) as one of his “first mature statements in a language that was born out of my initial exposure to minimalism.”
For my part “Harmonium” was my first encounter with Adams setting text, one poem by John Donne (“Negative Love”) and two by Emily Dickinson (“Because I Could Not Stop for Death” and “Wild Nights”). I was struck with Adams’ sensitivity to giving each of these poems a meaningful reading, not only in the phrasing of his writing for mixed chorus but also in his capacity to use his instrumental setting to establish connotations to enhance the denotations of the words themselves. “Harmonium” was completed in 1981. Within that same decade lighting would strike again with the composition of “The Wound-Dresser” (1989), adding Walt Whitman to the group those poets whose intense expressiveness had been deftly enhanced by Adams’ music.
It was in this context that, yesterday afternoon, I found myself listening to Adams’ setting of Frederick Douglass’ speech, which was subsequently published under the title “What to a slave is the 4th of July?” I had previously discussed how much of the second act of Girls of the Golden West had to do with a Fourth of July pageant that devolved into a White Supremacy rally, thus lending a “historical” account a reflective stance “on the current state of our government and the mentality of the electorate that brought us to that state.” It is in this context that Adams’ score has the mulatto chef Ned (known as Paganini in the “Shirley” letters of Louise Clappe) deliver Douglass’ words in the most solidly-conceived aria of the entire opera. Bass-baritone Davóne Tines clearly got Adams’ message, shifting his theatrical stance from a skillful servant to a compelling orator.
Davóne Tines channeling Frederick Douglass (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
I found myself reflecting back on “Harmonium.” Through that “initial exposure to minimalism,” Adams had begun to develop a grammatical foundation for his work, a structural framework that accounted for melody, harmony, counterpoint, and rhythm. By working with texts by Donne and Dickinson, Adams was able to build on that foundation by using those poets as a sort of rhetorical compass with which he could bring expressiveness to the abstract forms grounded in his grammar. Tines’ delivery of Adams’ aria made it clear that, at least for those few minutes, the composer was once again informed by that rhetorical compass. (Judging from the rest of the libretto, I would speculate that Peter Sellars has no rhetorical compass, preferring, instead, a fidget spinner.)
This is music that definitely deserves front-and-center treatment in a recital setting. I make this point because, while Tines was singing, I was looking around to see how the audience was reacting. I do not think I have seen so many audience members lulled into slumber at any previous opera performance I had attended! (That includes the operas of Richard Wagner.) It would appear that a generous section of the audience missed the best part of the Adams’ music.