Provocateur of the Opera

Who still composes operas these days? John Adams — tackling topical subjects

Composer John Adams outside the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.
Composer John Adams outside the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles.

In the first act of John Adams’ opera “Girls of the Golden West,” a New Englander — born Louise Clappe and pen-named Dame Shirley — arrives at the mid-19th century California Gold Rush aboard a mule. For audiences at the opera’s premiere at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House last fall, there was a feeling, rare in classical music, of regional familiarity and historical curiosity. The impact was even stronger for Adams, the Berkeley-based composer who maintains a second home in the High Sierra, not far from the setting of the drama.

Adams must have felt a likeness of mind with the stalwart Shirley. “She’s a remarkable person with both great grit and determination, and also a wonderful sense of self-deprecatory humor and a great capacity to empathize with other people,” he said in an interview during rehearsals. He might as well have been talking about himself.

Over the past 40-plus years, Adams has created an extensive body of work, much of it confronting musical conventions. He has dramatically updated the opera repertoire with topics such as Richard Nixon’s opening of international relations with China (“Nixon in China”); terrorism (“The Death of Klinghoffer”); and the development of nuclear weapons (“Doctor Atomic”).

This newsworthiness and the scope of his productions have attracted new audiences to operas in San Francisco and elsewhere. As today’s leading operatic composer, Adams has arguably inspired such other contemporary operas as Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s “Harvey Milk” and Mason Bates’ “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.”

A scene from Adams’ 2017 opera, “Girls of the Golden West.”
A scene from Adams’ 2017 opera, “Girls of the Golden West.”

Since 1970, Adams also has created more than two dozen orchestral works and numerous compositions for smaller ensembles, soloists and singers. As in his idiosyncratic operas, he has determinedly departed from prevailing compositional trends, experimenting with electronic elements and deploying pop music sources and ticklish titles that telegraph his intention to take neither the art form nor himself too seriously. All this has garnered for Adams a Pulitzer Prize (for a 9/11 memorial choral piece, “On the Transmigration of Souls”), a handful of Grammys and numerous honorary doctorates.

Adams’ interests in humanistic stories and subjects are as dependable as his inventiveness. The major characters in Adams’ operas, like Dame Shirley in “Girls of the Golden West,” work through their inner conflicts as they play out their historical dramas. “Like Mozart, John is capable of pathos and humor, frequently right next to each other,” says librettist and director Peter Sellars, Adams’ collaborator on most of the operas. “The deep things in people’s lives are the deep things in John’s music.”


Like Dame Shirley, Adams, 71, was raised in New England and came to California to find his fortune. Over the past few decades, he’s become a valued member of the Bay Area music community, creatively contributing to San Francisco’s opera company, symphony orchestra and music conservatory, as well as becoming a go-to composer-in-residence and conductor worldwide.

Picking up the compositional pen after graduating from Harvard in the late 1960s, Adams sought his place in that conflicted period of classical music development. In a move emblematic of the era, he and his then-wife headed for California in a Volkswagen Beetle.

Never having spent a summer outside New England, Adams quickly fell in love with San Francisco and Berkeley, where avant-garde musical mashups, free of formal allegiance, abounded. In 1972, he landed a job at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, teaching composition and directing a series of “new music” concerts.

Keeping his ears open to what he described as “the congenial hippie spirit of the West Coast,” Adams developed what he describes as his first mature piece, “Phrygian Gates,” for piano, in 1977. It was received as a contribution to the multimedia migration toward minimalism, a movement that reduced art to its bare, powerful essentials. But Adams refused to be confined only to one harmonic key, instead cycling kaleidoscopically through half a dozen. “Shaker Loops,” written by Adams a year later for chamber orchestra, introduced alluring wave motions and dance figures into the minimalist medium.

Edo de Waart, the young Dutch-born musical director of the San Francisco Symphony, was pleased to have an innovator of his own generation in close proximity, and engaged Adams to pilot a new series of contemporary music and to help christen the symphony’s new home at Davies Hall. The commission resulted in “Harmonium,” a setting of poetry by John Donne and Emily Dickinson. In 1982, the San Francisco Symphony engaged Adams to conduct the premiere of his “Grand Pianola Music,” a piece for chamber orchestra that suggests the tone of an interview with the composer: witty, eclectic and provocative.

In his 2009 autobiography, “Hallelujah Junction: Composing an American Life,” Adams revealed that his “Pianola” vision was “launched by my LSD memory of Rudolf Serkin’s ever-expanding Steinway, as he played the Beethoven ‘Choral Fantasy’ on a warm summer afternoon in Vermont at the Marlboro Music Festival. That memory was further amplified several years later, when I had a dream that I was driving along a lonely stretch of California highway, as two black Steinways loomed up from behind and zoomed by in the passing lane at breakneck speed, gushing forth volleys of E-flat and B-flat major triads. These were the triads of the ‘heroic’ flat keys of Beethoven — of the ‘Eroica,’ of the ‘Emperor’ concerto and of the ‘Hammerklavier’ sonata.” (He now assures: “I haven’t taken anything stronger than chardonnay in a long, long time.”)

American tenor Robert Brubaker (as Mao Tse-tung) (left) and baritone James Maddalena (as Richard Nixon) perform in a revival of Adams’ “Nixon in China” in New York in 2011.
American tenor Robert Brubaker (as Mao Tse-tung) (left) and baritone James Maddalena (as Richard Nixon) perform in a revival of Adams’ “Nixon in China” in New York in 2011.


As Adams began to travel in the wake of an expanding reputation, he made the acquaintance of both the woman who’d become his second wife — photographer, musician and Jungian advocate Debbie O’Grady — and his long-term partner in provocative opera, Peter Sellars. At Harvard, a decade after Adams, Sellars had developed a reputation for notoriously inventive productions of classic material, including a puppet version of Wagner’s Ring cycle and a swimming pool staging of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” In the early 1980s, Sellars directed a Vietnam War-era setting of Haydn’s 18th century opera “Armida” at New Hampshire’s Monadnock Festival, where Adams and Elliott Carter were composers-in-residence.

“Both of them, from my point of view, were writing very dramatic music,” says Sellars, speaking from his base in Los Angeles, where he teaches Art as Social Action at UCLA. After witnessing a performance of Adams’ “Shaker Loops,” Sellars approached the composer, a head taller and several decibels quieter. “I said to John, ‘You should write an opera with this power you have of sustaining harmonic argument and tension across this span of time. It’s thrilling, and it’s been missing from opera for a couple of generations.’”

Sellars, fascinated by the political dynamics of the early ‘70s, suggested to Adams that the opera be named “Nixon in China,” exploring the landmark 1972 meeting between the avowedly anti-communist president of the United States and Mao Tse-Tung, the aging leader of the Chinese Communist Party, a collision of cultural and ideological differences.

After a period of Jungian therapy encouraged by his wife, Adams was determined to put Sellars’ suggestions into musical form. Despite their personality differences, the creative pair was joined in their political and artistic sensibilities. “Peter is deeply committed to the idea of art and social justice,” Adams says. Echoes Sellars: “John is so deeply informed on current events, it’s there in his music, and you can’t miss it. He makes arias where the truth rings out.”

Adams created arias in his maiden opera for Richard and Pat Nixon, Mao and Chang Ch’ing (Madame Mao), characters who, for the composer, “were so vivid they literally cried out for operatic treatment.” He and Sellars recruited a fellow Harvard alumna, poet Alice Goodman, to write the libretto, in couplets.

“Nixon in China” was two years in development, during which both of the composer’s children, Emily and Samuel Carl, were born. Houston Grand Opera, known for fostering new work, hosted the premiere in October 1987. Although the poetic form of the libretto and the subject matter of the story were new to contemporary opera, “Nixon” quickly moved on to national and international productions, a recording and a “Great Performances” telecast on PBS. Infused with musical references to both Asian themes and American big-band nostalgia, it has remained one of the composer’s most popular pieces.

American bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green (as Rambo, a hijacker) and English baritone Alan Opie (as Leon Klinghoffer) perform in Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2014.
American bass-baritone Ryan Speedo Green (as Rambo, a hijacker) and English baritone Alan Opie (as Leon Klinghoffer) perform in Adams’ “The Death of Klinghoffer” at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2014.


Adams’ next opera came from another surprising source. Prompted again by Sellars, Adams discovered a “strange, almost biblical feeling” in the story of the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro by members of the Palestine Liberation Front, who took as hostages a shipload of mainly Jewish-American tourists. One hostage, wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, was executed and thrown overboard.

With Goodman’s libretto and Sellars’ direction, “The Death of Klinghoffer” prompted charges of anti-Semitism and of romanticizing terrorism when the opera premiered in 1991. But the creators insisted on showcasing both sides of the conflict, even though “the unspoken rules of the public dialogue,” as Adams points out, “forbid us to acknowledge the fact that terrorism — as practiced by the Palestinians — is, as the historian Stanley Hoffmann describes it, ‘the weapon of the weak, in a classic conflict among states or within a state.’”

From the start, the ideological conflict seemed to overshadow any commentary on the opera’s art. But composer, critics and audiences concurred that it also was a rhythmically and dynamically difficult piece, involving electronic synthesizers and samplers as well as a large orchestra, chorus and choreography.

For a while, the pushback against “Klinghoffer” made Adams wary of trying to write another contemporary opera. “Even though ‘Nixon’ had made me famous and ‘Klinghoffer’ had made me infamous, the idea of immersing myself … in a labor-intensive project of that scope held little appeal,” Adams now says about his state of mind at the turn of the millennium. Indeed, few among his classical composer colleagues would even dream about approaching the operatic stage, not to mention returning to it repeatedly.

But while working on “El Niño,” a much smaller-scale “opera-oratorio” based on the Nativity and his own fatherhood and leveraging his recently acquired fluency in Spanish, Adams was asked by then-General Director Pamela Rosenberg at the San Francisco Opera to create an “American Faust” opera, based on the crisis of conscience of pioneering nuclear scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer as he oversaw the test of the atomic bomb in 1945. Sellars came up with a libretto, and both words and music, along with a mammoth prop bomb suspended above the stage, proved audience-friendly — and pretty much free from political controversy — when “Doctor Atomic” premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2005.

Adams’ third opera continues to radiate. It was directed by Sellars again this summer, with the composer in attendance, at the outdoor Santa Fe Opera company, just 33 miles from Oppenheimer’s wartime laboratory at Los Alamos.

Audiences at this summer’s Santa Fe Opera production of Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” were confronted by a giant version of the atomic bomb.
Audiences at this summer’s Santa Fe Opera production of Adams’ “Doctor Atomic” were confronted by a giant version of the atomic bomb.


Sellars’ and Adams’ latest opera is “also a very incendiary work,” Sellars says. Set more than 150 years ago, it not surprisingly reflects current events and politics. “Girls of the Golden West” is the tale of the effects of the California Gold Rush on the multiracial women and men who came together in the foothills of the Sierra. “There was a great deal of racial violence” perpetrated on Hispanics and Chinese in the High Sierra gold country, Sellars says. “And these are things that America is still dealing with, right now. It’s vividly depicted, not as something that’s happened since Donald Trump, but rather something which is in the American brain and is part of the founding of California.”

Sellars dug up a variety of 19th century written sources as the basis for “Girls of the Golden West,” including the letters of Dame Shirley, a journal kept by a Peruvian miner and dispatches from the original Alta California, the Gold Rush-era daily newspaper published in San Francisco. Shirley and several other of the “Girls” reflect the strong female affirmations in the characters of many of Adams’ and Sellers’ previous collaborations, including the brief opera “A Flowering Tree” (2006) and “The Gospel According to the Other Mary” (2013), an opera-oratorio.

As personable and as informed about current culture as he is about politics, Adams is in demand as a mentor, lecturer and conductor across the globe. As younger composers have tried to follow in his footsteps, some of them into the opera house, Adams himself has embraced his eclectic curiosity and grown beyond any category of minimalism, neo-romanticism, or what have you. He is very much his own man.

On his busy studio desk rests the score of a commissioned concerto for superstar pianist Yuja Wang to be performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in March. “It’s called, ‘Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes?’” Adams announces with a characteristic quiet chuckle and a twinkle in his gray eyes. “And it doesn’t have any political meaning.”

Keep reading: We visited SF Opera’s costume shop — currently in the midst of “Tosca” fittings, “The Ring” rehearsals and one sick diva.

Jeff Kaliss is a longtime published journalist, author, annotator, and poet focused on music and entertainment.
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