The operas of John Adams are more performed than those of any other living composer. Ahead of his newest opera, Girls of the Golden West, which opens in San Francisco on November 21st, Adams talked to us about the opera, about the Gold Rush and the challenges of writing and promoting new classical music.

John Adams and Peter Sellars © Stefan Cohen
John Adams and Peter Sellars
© Stefan Cohen

DK: Where did the idea of a Gold Rush opera first come from?

JA: Peter Sellars was asked to do a staging of the Puccini opera, and when he read the libretto, he felt that it was kind of a period piece and didn't really reflect the realities and the actual events of the Gold Rush. He thought it might be interesting to take a similar theme, one that particularly attracted me because I've lived in California for the past 40 years, and see if we could craft a version that told the real story with contemporary texts. We have the libretto made up of what people actually said, which was a method that we first developed with Doctor Atomic. The title, of course, is just a little wicked. Of course my publisher was appalled, for fear that opera companies wouldn't want to go near it because of the potential for confusion. But I think that's proving not to be the case – at least I hope so! It does appear that people realize that our Girls (plural) is a completely different piece of work.

Is the Gold Rush one of those crunch points in history?

In a way. I live only a few miles away from Silicon Valley and I've watched how the tech boom and the hectic over-valuation of digital economy has grown. I have seen what to me seemed like resonances between the manic activity that happened in the 1850s here in California and what's currently going on in Silicon Valley. But I didn't choose this topic for that reason alone. There are many things about the Gold Rush that touch on human behavior in very much the same way as another well-known opera (or another tetralogy) about gold does. It's about human greed, about idealism, about living on a knife edge between wild material gain and abject personal catastrophe, which really typifies what life for these people in the 1850s was like.

Like most Californians, I knew about the Gold Rush, but I didn't really know it in depth. When I read deeper into the subject, I discovered that it was very much like life right now. As long as there was gold, everybody seemed to get along and all kinds of people came here from everywhere: Chinese, Chileans, Mexicans, Europeans as well as East Coast Americans and people from the Midwest. Once the gold became more scarce, people started reverting to tribalism and racism and the kind of identity politics that we're seeing right now in this country. I wrote most of the opera in 2016 during the presidential campaign, so I kept running into these harsh reminders that things never really change.

Joe Bowers - A very Pathetic Ballad, as sung by Mr. Johnson, of the Melodeon, San Francisco © California Lettersheet Collection, Kemble Spec Col 09, California Historical Society
Joe Bowers - A very Pathetic Ballad, as sung by Mr. Johnson, of the Melodeon, San Francisco
© California Lettersheet Collection, Kemble Spec Col 09, California Historical Society
How do you take that kind of manic behaviour, of tribal behaviour and turn it into music?

I wanted the music to be somewhat sparse, because life for these people was very sparse. Just getting out here was terribly dangerous and complicated, with endless obstacles that made life brutally harsh. So obviously, I wasn't going to use some opulent hyper-expressive orchestral and harmonic palette: I was looking for something that had a very direct and somewhat gritty conciseness. Then, an element that became very important in dictating the musical language of the piece came from these Gold Rush Songs that Peter and I found immensely appealing, because their texts told the stories in a marvelous mix of wit and sentimentality. The California Historical Society is a wonderful archival source where you can actually look at the original pamphlets that came out with these songs, so I took the texts – not the melodies – and set them to my own music. Because the texts have a very simple, iambic pentameter rhyming couplet quality, the music I responded with reflected that simplicity and directness of language.

Your musical language changes radically between your various operas. Is this your development as a composer, or is it because the different subjects require different music? 

You can't be a really good theatrical composer and be a stylistic purist. There are pieces in the history of opera where a composer has been very faithful to a specific stylistic language, for example Pélléas et Melisande, but it's interesting that Debussy only wrote one finished opera. Messiaen also wrote only one opera, which is also very stylistically pure. But in general, you need to reach out and use a very wide expressive palette to depict scenes and to probe the psychological complexities of your characters. Nixon in China is interesting because when I go back to it (and I love it, it's one of my favourite pieces), I realise how much of it really is very obviously minimalist in style. But even then, I was unable to stay absolutely pure to the minimalist style. Partly, that was for humor, like the utilisation of the big band jazz. But in the last act, I needed to go to a level of psychological and emotional depth that a minimalist palette just couldn't achieve. It's not surprising that for the next opera, The Death of Klinghoffer, I basically abandoned minimalism entirely because of the challenge of telling that story.

John Adams with conductor Grant Gershon in rehearsal © Cory Weaver
John Adams with conductor Grant Gershon in rehearsal
© Cory Weaver

But with the sheer variety of styles in Nixon in China, it's actually quite difficult for an orchestra to get its head round performing them all perfectly - for example, orchestras don't necessarily know how to swing...

You're right, but the good news is that if you work long enough, you come in touch with younger generations who've grown up with the music. I remember when the San Francisco Symphony played Short Ride in a Fast Machine, back in 1985: they made a wonderful recording of it, but they struggled, and they're a phenomenally good orchestra. Scroll forward to 2017 and two youth orchestras toured with Short Ride, one in England and then the National Youth Orchestra of the US, conducted by Marin Alsop. I heard these performances and they were just spectacularly good, and these are teenagers playing. So what one generation finds difficult, another one grows up with. We know youth orchestras that regularly play The Rite of Spring now, so things change.

Tell us about some of the singers you're working with...

They're all young. One of the facts that's often overlooked about the Gold Rush is that most of the people who came here were very young. They had to be tough enough physically just to survive the trip out here, which whether they came by ship or across the continent, was incredibly grueling. So we have a cast with a median age under 30, and they're all phenomenally talented. They have beautiful voices and what I most love about them is their basic musicianship. I write music that's quite rhythmically complex for singers and they all just nailed it on the first go-round – that's not like it used to be in the old days!

Members of the <i>Girls of the Golden West</i> cast © Stefan Cohen
Members of the Girls of the Golden West cast
© Stefan Cohen

Are there any other historical events that excite you - are you already thinking about the next opera?

No, I'm not. An idea for a new opera is always very hard to come by. You need a story that can be both temporally compact and yet able to bear the weight of psychological and emotional depth. It has to be compelling enough to keep not only the audience’s concentration going but also the composers! I would not want to commit myself to spending two years working on a story that didn’t excite me every time I sat down to work on it.

A lot of journalists, particularly in the US, are saying that opera is a dying medium. Our experience is the opposite, with many new operas by American composers. Are there any of your peers that you're excited about?

It's a very paradoxical situation, because I'm 70, I have probably written 8 or 9 music theatre pieces including El Niño and The Gospel according to the other Mary, and what matters to me is not only the new one but the “shelf life” of my other operas. Because if we create something and it only gets a first go-round and then disappears, then we've not made any real impact on the cultural landscape. It’s ironic that nowadays I often hear from an opera company here in the US or elsewhere that, yes, they would like to present one of my operas, such as Nixon or Klinghoffer or Doctor Atomic, but that the truth is they know they’ll get more attention and perhaps more funding if they can do a world premiere.

So on the one hand, it's very encouraging that many opera companies including small ones are commissioning and premièring new operas, that's very exciting, but the downside of that is whether these works are going to go into the repertoire, whether they're going to be done regularly in the same way as Puccini, Mozart, Strauss, Wagner or Britten. Although I have to say that I'm old enough to remember when, at least here in the United States, Britten and Janáček were almost never done – those are two composers who have become repertoire, but only over the course of the last 30-odd years.

John Adams and singer Ryan McKinny in rehearsal © Cory Weaver
John Adams and singer Ryan McKinny in rehearsal
© Cory Weaver

Like any composer, you have to produce something new, exciting and different, but you have to avoid alienating the audience with music so unfamiliar that they can't deal with it. How do you manage that dilemma?

I think if I started with a presumption like that, it would be very damaging. There’s really important work that’s been written over the last hundred or more years that is very difficult to understand or appreciate on first encounter. If the composers were anxious about “alienating” their audiences they would not have the courage to write these pieces. But with that said, I think new work has always been a hard sell. In the flat where I was staying at the Royal Academy of Music last spring, there was a huge stack of Gramophone magazines that dated back to the 1940s. I was reading the oldest ones and I realised that things were no better or worse then than they are now: it's always been a terrific uphill fight to introduce something new to classical music audiences.

I recently read an interview with Bernard Haitink, who said that when he first started performing the Mahler 6th, 7th and 8th symphonies, even the 9th, he looked out and saw half-empty halls. That would be unthinkable today: next to Beethoven, Mahler is the most popular composer there is. So one has to be very patient and hope there are committed conductors who are willing to use not only their talent, but their prestige and what we call the bully pulpit: people like Simon Rattle, Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel. Gustavo has done a remarkable amount of new music, and done it very well, but most of the music world is unaware of that fact.

But unfortunately, in the classical music world, so many decisions now are driven by Big Data, and I've watched how American orchestras in particular have become basically run by their marketing departments. It gets to the point where every concert has to have a theme, which is usually either a big name soloist or the most popular piece on the program. I'll give you a case in point – over the last year and a half, I've been touring with a big 50 minute piece of mine called Scheherazade.2, with the wonderful violinist Leila Josefowicz: she's played the piece something like 60-70 times now. I often pair it with something very popular, such as the Respighi Pines of Rome. The orchestra's marketing will always say “This Week! Pines of Rome!” and then of course the review will focus on my piece, and barely mention Pines of Rome. But these organisations are so terrified of even admitting that there's going to be a new work on the program that they treat it like a misbehaving in-law – we have to invite him to dinner but we're not going to tell anybody he's coming. 

Is using Big Data in that way fundamentally reactionary? Does it create inertia by definition?

It is. Players in an orchestra are always fighting a sense of depression, because they just have to keep playing the same repertoire over and over. They want to be challenged, but they're told by their marketing directors that they have to focus on the same repertoire. And the market for glamorous soloists is now feverish.

But is there is an extent to which some contemporary composers – I'm not thinking about yourself – produce music which audiences just find too difficult to listen to? Should composers of the Milton Babbitt school be cognisant of that?

Well, I think the proof is in the pudding, that music which requires an extremely sophisticated background ends up being heard by very small, specialised audiences. The original title of that famous article by Milton Babbitt, before an editor changed it [to “Who Cares if You Listen?”] was “The Composer as Specialist”. Babbitt was happy to consider himself a specialist, and I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I frequently go to concerts which are part of a new music festival or a programme by a group that specialises in new music, and those can be thrilling concerts. I recently heard a performance of a 70 minute work for violin and piano by Morton Feldman that was a transformative experience for me.

But I realise that your standard subscription ticket buyer, who is hoping to see Yo-Yo Ma play Saint-Saëns or Michael Tilson Thomas perform Gershwin or Mahler, that person may simply not know what to make of Birtwistle or Feldman or Cage or even Ligeti. So I can't hold the big organisations to blame for not flooding their programmes with difficult music, but I do think that there is such a thing as an educated, sophisticated audience. One of the reasons I love conducting in London is that the audiences are very sophisticated there. They may not love every difficult piece that they've heard, but they know what to expect and I feel that they really appreciate my music, whereas I'll go to a city in the Mid-West of the United States or maybe Italy or Spain where people rarely hear anything that challenges them, and it's a hard sell.

This very morning, before we started this conversation, I was worrying over a programme for an orchestra in Texas which has invited me to come and conduct next season. It's a very wonderful thing that they want to have a composer come and conduct, but I have to come up with a programme that will satisfy both my needs and theirs, and that's not easy. 

What advice would you give to a young composer setting out on the path that you've travelled?

I think, first of all, that young composers should be able to perform one instrument well. And I think that knowing the repertoire, not only the “canon” – I say that in quotation points because the canon is very controversial today – but to be an omnivorous listener. Beyond that, one never knows who's going to emerge. A friend of mine has a rather cruel but altogether correct comment: there's no substitute for talent, and talent is very, very rare. So if you do have talent and imagination, you need also to have this foundation of knowing an instrument, having studied harmony and theory, and knowing the repertoire. That sounds like a very boring answer, but it's really the truth.

Of course, we have a young composer in the family, our son [Samuel Adams] who, for the last few years, has been composer-in-residence with Chicago Symphony. I don't know whether he took my advice or not!