[lit-ideas] Re: The Golden West

  • From: Jlsperanza@xxxxxxx
  • To: lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx
  • Date: Mon, 6 Dec 2010 08:42:34 EST

In a message dated 12/6/2010 2:10:28 A.M. Eastern Standard Time,  
ritchierd@xxxxxxxxxxxxx writes:
"I keep looking around for a historian of the American West"
Thanks, D. R. That was most illuminating.
"As I understand it, gold goes like this: discovery in California, everyone 
 chases there."
As Zangarini et al write in the note to the libretto: Coloma, Jan. 1848, by 
 Marshall (excerpted below).   
Yes, there are controversial bits. If you look at photographic evidence of  
the thing, it is an extra thing. Of the opera production, I mean. There are 
just  TWO female roles: Minnie, and the lover of Billy Jack Rabbit -- 
another "native  American": a mezzosoprano. Minnie keeps suggesting that they 
(Billy and her  lover) get married. I don't think they do. They have a baby.
Billy Jack Rabbit is displayed as stealing cigars and being drunk most of  
the time. 
In his study "Puccini", Carner indicates that they (the Native-American  
pair) is "introduced to show the demoralising effect which ... camp life has 
had  on the natives". Like Dizikes, Carner can simplify things.
On top of that there seems to be a reference to minstrel shows ("De Camp  
Town Races") which may also seem interesting vis a vis the portrayal of  
------ I'll keep an eye if there are press reports about the _current_  
staging (opening today) at the Met vis a vis this or that portrayal. 
--- The lynching scene (or would be lynching scene -- since the "Girl"  ar
rives just in time to avoid it) was Puccini's own brilliant idea. In 
Belasco's  play there is a 'trial' set in the saloon itself. In any case, 
soon came  to observe that the 'lynching' scene could only give America a bad 
'promotion',  if that's the word. And indeed, 'caricature' was the word 
Anglo-Saxon critics (to generalise) tend to be "over-literal" (as Grice and 
 Griceans sometime) and indeed they may fail to detect an 'implicature' on 
the  part of an operatic score. As Ritchie has it, life is not a caricature, 
neither  is opera. This is the final passage in "Whisky per tutti", the 
chapter on the  opera in Dizikes's book:
"One critic said dismissively: "Whiskey per tutti and andiamo Minnie were  
not the language of the Wild West." But it wasn't the Wild West on the stage 
of  the Metropolitan, with miners singing, "Whiskey for everyone" or "Let's 
go  Minnie". It was make-believe. It was art. It was opera".
At one point, Rance gives a little speech in Italian. He is the Sheriff. He 
 refers to the 'damned' "Occidente d'oro" -- 'damned Golden West'. Puccini 
had  troubles with the TITLE of the opera. Belasco's is "The Girl of the 
Golden  West", and I have NOT checked to see if "Golden West" qua expression 
occurs in  the text of BELASCO's play, but it does, in this derogatory manner, 
in Puccini's  libretto. It was the Englishwoman Mrs. Seligman (married to 
the London banker)  who suggested "La fanciulla del West" and it stuck with 
Puccini -- perhaps not  very complete (since for Belasco it is _Golden_ and 
not just "West") but it was  thought that a word-by-word translation would be 
a mouthful: "La fanciulla [or  figlia] dell'occidente d'oro". Puccini 
considered the mere "L'occidente d'oro".  He thought that "L'Occidente della 
Fanciulla" would trigger one unintended  double entendre or two.
In any case, the patrons liked it. Puccini had a reception at the  
Vanderbilts after the show. There is a reference to the Transport Agency Wells  
Fargo, and other topical points which must have amused the audience -- and of  
course Belasco was in care of the 'stage directions'. The Italians in the 
cast  loved him and thought he looked (as he did) as a curate, which added to 
his  charm. Apparently, his stage directions (keep your hands in your pockets 
-- his  point that miners are phlegmatic) soon wore off, and soon enough 
(Krehbiel  notes) the cast was behaving again like brigands of the Abruzzi.
Ricordi added a 'note' to his bilingual edition of the libretto making a  
reference to the very first nugget of gold ever found on the Golden West,  
especifically on what mine -- and Minnie has some good lines about the  
'sociology' as it were underlying it all.
The note to the libretto by Zangarini (whose mother was from Colorado) and  
a second librettist goes: "The action takes place in that period of 
California  history which follows immediately upon the discovery made by the 
Marshall  of the first nugget of gold, at Coloma, in January, 1848. An 
unbridled greed, an  upheaval of all social order, a restless anarchy followed 
upon the news of this  discovery. The United States, which in the same year, 
1848, had annexed  California, were engaged in internal wars; and, as yet 
undisturbed by the  abnormal state of things, they were practically outside 
everything that occurred  in the period of this work; the presence of their 
sheriff indicates a mere show  of supremacy and political control. An early 
history of California, quoted by  Belasco, says of this period: "In those 
strange days, people coming from God  knows where joined forces in that far 
Western land, and, according to the rude  custom of the camp, their very names 
were soon lost and unrecorded, and here  they struggled, laughed, gambled, 
cursed, killed, loved, and worked out their  strange destinies in a manner 
incredible to us of to-day. Of one thing only we  are sure — they lived!". 
"but in the absence of one, I'll clear my throat and, knowing that you know 
 I trained as a European intellectual historian, add a few words.  As I  
understand it, gold goes like this: discovery in California, everyone chases  
there.  Discovery in Oregon's south, we run up there.  Discovery in  
Oregon's east, better git over.  Then there's Dakota's Black Hills, and the  
Rosebud river, in which Randolph Hearst's father was I think involved--hence 
sled ref. in the movie, I believe--and then there's Alaska. I'm struck by 
the  idea of an opera...and you'll remember our earlier exchanges about how 
gold  mining and opera houses coexisted...in which a Native American is put in 
charge  of legal justice.  I understand the implication that Puccini just 
didn't  understand the material, but what if he did?  What if he was working, 
as  people did, from contemporary tales, taken from say an illustrated  
journal?  In my understanding of the evidence, it was not "unthinkable" to  
"allow" a Native American to do this or that.  The category "Native  American" 
is of course anachronistic, but "Indians" were not employed by the  U.S. 
army merely as scouts.  I can understand views of the Eastern  audience, 
particularly after Little Big Horn and the Modoc Wars, imagining that  it would 
wrong to empower an Indian, but in the real West?  No, I can  imagine such 
a scene."
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