First review: It’s thumbs down for the new John Adams opera

First review: It’s thumbs down for the new John Adams opera


norman lebrecht

November 23, 2017

Joshua Kosman is first in print with a review in the San Francisco Chronicle of the world premiere of the John Adams-Peter Sellars opera, Girls of the Golden West.

He’s unimpressed with what he calls as ‘operatic tofuturkey’:

Bloated, repetitive, self-righteous and dull, this commission by the San Francisco Opera (in partnership with the Dallas Opera and Dutch National Opera, Amsterdam) represents a miscalculation of astonishing dimensions….

“Girls of the Golden West” is a work that seems to have taxed Adams’ prodigious creative energy to its breaking point, leaving him to recycle favorite stylistic tics from his earlier work (and from other composers) amid a stream of discursive monologues and choppy ballads.

All of this, needless to say, comes as a huge shock from a team that has given us such operatic masterpieces as “Nixon in China” and (on balance) “Doctor Atomic.” 

Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Read on here.

Next review by Janos Gereben of SFGate (but on his own site) is no less of a let-down: 

It is the music that’s the surprising, almost shocking disappointment. Meandering, uninteresting vocal lines are heard against a monotonous orchestral background that takes the listener back to the early days of Minimalism — not even Adams’, but Philip Glass’ at his worst. It’s only at the very end of the opera, during a lengthy death-and-lamentation scene that musical beauty appears, but it’s too late: some of the audience have left, others sit numb, and a small group of fans applauds enthusiastically.

Full review here.

There are gung-ho reviews in the Mercury News  and the SF Examiner. Nothing yet in the New York Times, NPR or other national media.

Mark Swed in the LA Times is more measured.


  • Frankster says:

    Old-school Kosman couldn’t get his head around a complex libretto. He was expecting a 19th Century story-telling opera and was confused that social issues intruded on his John Wayne idea of the “Golden West.” Funny, yes. Thoughtful, no.

  • John Groves says:

    Let’s hope it doesn’t make its way to the London Coliseum!!!!

  • jonathan dunsby says:

    This is quite damning :

    ==The opera’s run time of 3¼ hours feels arbitrary — the piece could have run five hours, or 80 minutes, and had essentially the same effect.

    • Meaux Feaux says:

      Mate, you’re the conductor. Looks a bit desperate posting links to reviews of your own gigs. Don’t worry – you’ll probably get paid anyway even if it is rubbish…

      • Grant Gershon says:

        I truly don’t give a flying f*ck about my own review in this context. I believe in this piece passionately—-I think that John and Peter have taken huge risks and created something powerful and unique. It deserves to be heard so that people can form their own opinions. It bothers me that Norman is giving so much weight to one nasty review with this post when in truth the notices so far have been wildly varying (as one might expect with such a challenging and complex new work).

        • Jonathan Grieves-Smith says:

          I would think the wonderful Grant Gershon will know the quality of opera and performance better than anyone!!

    • trolley80 says:

      This is exactly the kind of nonsense this website traffics in. The author throws out a terrible review and one of the performers feels the need to embarrass himself this way, because he labors under the misapprehension that people take this site seriously.

  • Steve P says:

    American composer? Check. American production? Also check. Negative reviews highlighted on this blog? Again, check.

  • Jason M. says:

    Interesting that the positive reviews actually provide specifics while the negative reviews are vague.

    • Lusignan says:

      You confuse specifics with details, and vague with conceptual. When corrected, your sentence reads:

      Interesting that the positive reviews actually provide details while the negative reviews are conceptual.

  • NICK D. says:

    While I haven’t seen/ heard this new opera, Joshua Kosman’s Chronicle review certainly resonated with my personal experience of much of John Adams’s stage work, post-Nixon in China: 1. “None of it [i.e. the production], though, could rescue a work whose central misjudgments were baked in from the start.”; and: 2. “Future music historians, I think, will perceive even more clearly that we can today the extent to which [Alice] Goodman’s [librettist for Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer] retirement from creative activity was a central, defining catastrophe in Adams’ operatic career.” It is admirable for an artist constantly to be striving to expand her/his expressive reach, but Adams seems to me a frustrating case of a truly great talent repeatedly getting in way over his head and out of his depth; the pattern in too many of his “big” pieces has been: 3-4 superb numbers surrounded by stretches of decent writing, plus a fair amount of really hollow music. I would speculate that his ambition to be recognized as someone who writes Really Important Operas is only intermittently matched by the sort of self-knowledge that instinctively or consciously guides the most successful creative talents to choose projects (and collaborators) that show their true gifts at their best. Thank you.

    • trolley80 says:


      “I haven’t seen or heard this, but here are some opinions about it”

      • NICK D. says:

        My point was that the criticisms of this new piece by those who have heard it sound remarkably similar to those of most of John Adams’s “big” stage works after Nixon in China, many of which I have in fact seen and/or heard. There appears to be a familiar pattern here of incidental musical strengths and major dramatic weaknesses, that many of us have been hoping Adams might one day transcend or outgrow.

  • David says:

    That review by janos gereben isn’t from SFGate, its from his own personal blog. The SFGate review is the same one by Kosnan, it is also owned and operated by the Chronicle. Please correct your mistake.

  • Ungeheuer says:

    Aren’t we tired yet of these CNN operas?

  • David Boxwell says:

    There’s only one “Dame Shirley”. And it’s BASSEY! And she should have been in it.

  • harold braun says:

    Don´t give a fuck about music critics and reviews.I can read a score and have ears to listen.Period.

  • Jonathan Sutherland says:

    Jason M’s comment is valid.
    David Karlin’s very prompt and largely positive review in Bachtrack is worth considering.

  • John Borstlap says:

    Reviews which contradict each other are a sign that the work in question has something to say, whatever that is. Discussion about opera productions are always fruitful, and nothing is more lethal than bland unanimity in the press. I have not seen / heard this opera, but knowing something of the former ones by Adams, I think his music is so bound-up with contemporary hip and streamlined Americana that it will quickly loose its interest when time moves-on. Especially the idea that music – even in opera – should be based upon repetition of small motives, which is a quite meachanical idea, seems to me entirely contrary to the nature of the art form where the music is supposed to convey the ‘inside’ of what is happening on stage, making it possible for the audience to emotionally experience what it sees.

  • NICK D. says:

    A thoughtful, temperate (but clearly disappointed) review from Lisa Hirsch of San Francisco Classical Voice:

  • NICK D. says:

    And a “mixed” one from Allan Ulrich in The Financial Times:

  • NICK D. says:

    And another level-headed critique, this one from The Opera Tattler:

  • Bombastic.Co says:

    Just saw GOTGW. Sorry but Kosman is right on. This is a bloated political tract that is politically tone deaf, dramatically empty and musically monotonous. It’s the Revenge of the Deplorables on Ambien. SAD!

    • Jonathan Grieves-Smith says:

      You saw it once?

      • Bombastic.Co says:

        Yes. Ordinarily love Adams’ work. He needs a new librettist who will create something original instead of crib the writings of others in order to score brownie points with the elites.

        • Jonathan Grieves-Smith says:

          Your response is, of course, all yours, but may I ask if one hearing is likely to reveal everything to any listener. Yours is perhaps a rather caustic response and I would love to know your thoughts after another listen. Grant Gershon, considered and excellent, who has lived with the piece for a long time, feels there is a lot in this piece, so even if, in the end, we disagree with him, I would hope that musicians, stage crew, director, designer, librettist, composer, and the rest of us who through distance haven’t the opportunity to hear and see it, will receive considered, respectful feedback.

          • NICK D. says:

            1) You appear to have missed the extent to which some reviewers and commentaters, including many who describe themselves as fans of John Adams’s music, are expressing their long-term disappointment with Adams’s disinclination to work with a librettist, instead leaning on a collage-like accumulation of documents designed to lend “authenticity” to each new opera. This is an issue that goes way beyond this new piece. 2) As a stage director (plays, operas, “music theater”) I can tell you that EVERY participant in the creation of a new work – conductor, director, performers, designers – needs to believe 100% in the worth of the piece during the time they are involved with it! This is proper and right and necessary. It does not, however, tell you much of anything about what the audience will be experiencing “out front.” 3) In connection with that last thought: one of the many things that irritate me about John Adams is his tendency in interviews to speak about what his music “does,” as if this were a done deal. This is a red flag. A composer (or writer, or painter, etc.) can speak of her/his aim or intention in creating a work, of what drew them to the subject and what they hope will come across. Whether that is what listeners and lookers find in the work, only THEIR direct experience, subsequent reflection and the passing of time can determine. Thank you. 🙂

          • richard says:

            I will certainly listen again, but will I see it again? Probably not. The performances were strong, and passionate, but the material was didactic. An opera about “girls” dominated by men is the first clue. Instead of diving deep into the complexities of what motivates characters to act wisely or unwisely, like Nixon, it skated across the ice. The SF audience was polite but bolted for the doors pretty quickly. Don’t get me wrong, it’s fun to watch and worth experiencing, and you should, but for me it was ultimately very shallow.

          • B. de Lusignan says:

            You should commend this listener for having seen this piece ONCE, and in its entirety, and not snobbishly insinuate that his opinion is less valid for it. You should also be made aware that half the audience leaves at the intermission, exhausted with boredom. Uphill battle for you here.

  • Robert Berger says:

    Oh well. Win some, lose some . Possibly some revisions and judicial cutting could improve the new opera . I’ll withhold judgement until I hear it .

  • B. de Lusignan says:

    Saw the opera yesterday night, it was my birthday gift, and my long lasting infatuation with John Adams took a serious hit. I have to agree with Joshua Kosman on every point he makes. And add some.

    The truth is that Adams and Sellars, mostly Sellars with his antics, and Adams partly under his nefarious influence, have become thoroughly conventional. Adams himself, in his interview with the NYT, is expecting the next post-post modernist composer who will make him obsolete. The cultural Kabuki is entirely predictable. Pell-mell, in this production: gender, racism, the environment, “Brechtian’ (writes some gloriously vain critic; Brecht dead for sixty years) staging, a ‘philosophy’ (verbatim Sellars) of visible wings, highly visible and highly annoying stage hands in sneakers and knee pads, collage of texts for libretto (collage dead for half a century, Manhattan Transfer is pushing ninety), patchwork of ideas for concepts… and we are asked to focus on the ‘drama’, which is nonexistent. And we read of some characters being compared to a Greek chorus, but there is no Pride, no Doom, no Envy of the Gods, just crass human behavior shallowly treated. Sellars is a total and calculated fraud, and that leaves us with the music of John Adams, which is still genius at times, but disemboweled by the intellectual dishonesty, even depravity, of a gnome in a weird hairdo who passes for a theater guru.

    The production has girls in its title, is mostly about men, and is saved by a few arias, the booming male choruses that another seriously eunuched critic has compared to frightening football chants, and the last five minutes of music. You have to have patience, and not expect to be transported.

  • NICK D. says:

    And finally there is this from the lead music critic for the NY Times, Anthony Tommasini, a longtime fan of John Adams’s music who always does his best to find something positive to say about his stage works:

    • B. de Lusignan says:

      You are right, he tries to be nice.
      Just one example of how shallow and approximate the treatment of the political issues is in this production. The environment is symbolized by the giant tree trump. The allusion here is to deforestation. But deforestation was only indirectly related to the gold rush, and was nonexistent in the time frame of the opera, starting in earnest with logging in the 1880s. The real devastation of the environment directly attributable to gold seeking is still extremely visible today, along miles of rivers (The upper valley of the Trinity, The Scott, the Klamath, the Salmon…) and is mentioned by Dame Shirley: the tailings. She looks outside her window but her view is blocked by an awful pile of gravel. Farther are more piles of rocks.
      That’s what should have been on stage: a big pile of rocks. That would have been educational to a lot of people. But it is easier to be sloppy and go with the cliche of the sequoia, and score points with the zeitgeist, damned be the truth… Quite a history lesson.

      • NICK D. says:

        Thank you for those bits of accurate history! I actually have a copy of The Shirley Letters on order, and look forward to reading them. 🙂