Has All of Opera’s Gold Already Been Mined? John Adams Thinks Not.

Josh Rivers

He even raised the possibility that “Girls,” which San Francisco commissioned and produced along with the Dallas Opera and the Dutch National Opera, could be his last large-scale opera. “I think if I do another theater piece, it’s going to be small,” he said.

The “Girls” project began when Teatro alla Scala in Milan asked Mr. Sellars to direct a new production of Puccini’s “Fanciulla del West.” The Puccini opera features ravishing music, Italian operatic drama, and a sometimes pulpy libretto based on a David Belasco play that raises modern eyebrows when its Native American characters greet each other with “Ugh.”

Mr. Sellars passed. But he approached Mr. Adams about creating their own Gold Rush opera based on existing sources. Some opera buffs have bristled at their title’s wink at the Puccini opera, especially after Mr. Adams confessed in an interview that he does not really know it. But Mr. Adams’s work has long engaged with composers of the past — and he has written his share of allusive titles, including “Scheherazade.2,” a symphony for violin and orchestra whose title evokes Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade,” and his orchestral work “Harmonielehre,” which took its title from a book by Schoenberg, a composer he was actively breaking from.

Much of “Girls” is drawn from the letters of Louise Amelia Knapp Smith Clappe, a New Englander who lived in the mining camps with her husband, a doctor, in 1851 and 1852, and published them under the pen name “Dame Shirley.” It also incorporates bits of Mark Twain’s writings; Shakespeare, whose work was often performed for miners; and others.

This collagelike approach — which Mr. Sellars has used since he took over the lyric-writing duties from Alice Goodman, who wrote the librettos of Mr. Adams’s first two operas, “Nixon” and “Klinghoffer,” — has been controversial. It solves one problem: By using existing texts, it answers the sometimes distracting question of what a new opera in English should sound like. But some critics have found it lacking drama or poetry — which Mr. Adams rejects, saying he prefers them to many other recent librettos, which remind him of television scripts.

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