SFOpera - Synopsis


The events and characters in the opera are drawn from miners’ ballads, the letters of the writer Louise Clappe (“Dame Shirley”), the diary of Ramón Gil Navarro, the memoirs of fugitive slaves, poems by Chinese immigrants (Songs of Gold Mountain), Shakespeare, Mark Twain, the Argentine poet Alfonsina Storni, a speech by Frederick Douglass, biographies of Lola Montez, and the works of the preeminent 19th-century California historians Hubert Howe Bancroft and Josiah Royce. Most of the incidents depicted actually occurred during the Gold Rush, in 1851, in Rich Bar and in Downieville, on the first Fourth of July in the new state of California.


Scene 1: On the Road to the Sierra The hard-luck miner Clarence epitomizes the “driving, vigorous, restless population” of young men invading Gold Country. Recently arrived from New England, Dame Shirley rides a mule on her way to Rich Bar with her husband Fayette. She is an enthralled and astute observer of landscapes and people, and one of the rare women in these parts. After falling off her mule, she transfers to a wagon driven by the fugitive slave Ned Peters, now a Black cowboy moving west.

Scene 2: Encounter with Indian Women Dame Shirley and Ned are haunted by an unexpected sighting of a group of Indian women. Dame Shirley describes them as “wretched creatures” and “Macbethian witches” and is both challenged and moved by their nakedness, the beauty of their limbs, and the warm, unguarded look in their eyes.

Scene 3: Rich Bar At the bar of the Empire Hotel, the miner Joe Cannon sings his heart out, telling his friends the story of his girlfriend in Missouri, who threw him over for a butcher with red hair. Ah Sing, a vivacious young Chinese prostitute, helps him forget his sorrows. She sizes him up and decides he is the perfect man to help her realize her future ambitions. Panicking in the face of her expectations, Joe runs out into the night.

Scene 4: Late Night at the Empire The miners are totally addicted to gambling, making fortunes, and hopelessly ruining themselves, night after night. Ramón and Josefa work the tables. He deals, she is there to attract the crowd: “Without a girl, there can be no hotel, without a beautiful one, there can be no business.” Joe is a particularly drunk, aggressive customer and his crude advances towards Josefa trigger an ugly incident. Josefa and Ramón remember an afternoon far outside the city when their love was dangerous, fresh, and unobserved.

Scene 5: Coronation Dinner Shirley describes her tiny, primitive log cabin, royally appointed with discarded cans, bottles, boards, and claret cases. Ah Sing appears in a new dress, in a new apartment. When she was a little girl, she was sold for $10, and now she has bought her freedom for $700. Joe, her dream husband, will make a future possible. Ned prepares a “coronation dinner” for Shirley, “the Queen.” Shirley is overwhelmed with the stature and bearing of this profound and beautiful man.


Scene 1: The Raven Himself The Fourth of July in Downieville begins with the miners performing Shakespeare’s Macbeth with the role of Lady Macbeth assayed by Dame Shirley herself. Money rains upon the stage as miners throw nuggets and gold dust. An Independence Day fandango cloaks the plot of white miners to massacre large numbers of Mexicans, Chileans, and Peruvians. Many Mexicans have already left town, giving up their claims. This is California, “a land made up of strange things, of random luck, and cruel magic.”

Scene 2: Downieville Fourth of July As screams are heard from Mexicans being clubbed and robbed by Americans, Ah Sing steps up to the holiday stage to sing her ballad. She has come to America looking for a rich husband, and is determined to one day save enough money to buy a farm. Joe Cannon is proud to be openly acknowledged as her secret husband, but is then suddenly afraid. As Joe escapes, the angry crowd turns on Ah Sing and her Asian friends, yelling, “Get out, yellow skins, get out.” Clarence tries to defuse the crisis, presenting the glamorous and shameless dancer Lola Montez, performing her notorious “Spider Dance.”

Scene 3: The Whipping Macbeth’s “Is this a dagger I see before me?” soliloquy becomes a vivid reality for Clarence, as he contemplates mass murder. Josefa can hear cries and shouts outside her cabin. A group of Chileans are whipped, their heads shaved, and their ears cut off by vigilantes. Dame Shirley is repulsed by the violence. Ned, in indignation and righteous fury, rises up to address the mob.

Scene 4: The Stabbing  Dame Shirley pleads for Ned’s life before he is taken away. She is left to lament the loss of her only true friend, whose beautiful voice will never be heard again in these mountains. Josefa asks her lover Ramón to stay with her. She feels the weight of the world on her heart, a world that is exploding around her. She knows she and Ramón are targets, and that she will not live long. Ramón asks her to marry him. Josefa repeats over and over to Ramón that she is not allowed to cry. Her father and grandfather never cried. Joe Cannon arrives, drunk and lost in the dark. Ah Sing is out in the night, looking for him. Joe, fully armed, rips through the cloth door of Ramón and Josefa’s cabin and drags Josefa away. He tries to rape her. Locked in a violent struggle, Josefa stabs him with his own knife. He dies within hours.

Scene 5: The Hanging  A mob gathers around Josefa’s cabin. She faces them, calm, dignified, beautifully dressed, wearing her finest jewelry. At her hasty trial, no one speaks up to defend her. She asks God to forgive her persecutors. She is condemned to death. The entire town is present for the lynching.

Epilogue  On her last day at Rich Bar, Dame Shirley surveys the detritus of sardine cans, jars, and broken bottles that line the riverbanks, all dusted with a light covering of snow. She lifts her eyes to behold the purple beauty and majesty of the old mountains and “the wonderful and never-enough-to-be-talked-about sky of California” which “drops down upon the whole in fathomless splendor.”

Striking Gold