Ryan McKinny: Modern meaning in a Gold Rush-era opera

Ryan McKinny: Modern meaning in a Gold Rush-era opera

Jenna Simeonov
This month marks the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West at San Francisco Opera, the latest collaboration from operatic titans John Adams and Peter Sellars. The story follows those who flock to Gold Rush country in search of fortune, and their eking out a living within a micro-world of greed and optimism. Among the cast that also includes Julia Bullock, Davoné Tines, and J’Nai Bridges, is bass-baritone Ryan McKinny singing the miner Clarence King; we spoke with McKinny about creating the new character, working with the Adams/Sellars team, and how Girls of the Golden West rings true in contemporary American culture.

What can you tell us about Clarence King?

Clarence is a sort of leader of the miners. He talks a lot about how great all the men are (sometimes contrary to the evidence) and plays a kind of MC role in the Fourth of July festivities. He does some really terrible things to the women and minorities in the camp. He has some feelings of conflict about it, but that doesn’t change his actions.

What do you find most compelling about the story of Girls of the Golden West?

I think the Gold Rush era is a great opportunity to explore the conflict between the driving “progress” of America and the destruction it leaves behind, both in environmental and human toll. That conflict is front and center in our world today and seeing how it connects to our history is fascinating and important. John’s score is so powerful and human, it allows us to tackle these issues in a three dimensional way, without good guys bad guys, asking questions rather than providing answers.

Ryan McKinny as Clarence King in Girls of the Golden West, San Francisco Opera, 2017. Photo: Cory Weaver.

How do you think the partnership between John Adams and Peter Sellars fits into the contemporary opera scene?

I think centuries from now, these two will be remembered as one of the great artistic partnerships of all time. They complement and challenge each other and understand each others work deeply. And their goal is always to impact people on a deep level.

Ryan McKinny (right) in rehearsal with composer John Adams. Photo: Cory Weaver.

What elements do you think are needed to create a successful new opera for 21st-century audiences?

Maybe it depends on the definition of success. I know it’s expensive to put on opera and we want people to buy tickets, but to me the success of a piece lies in its ability to touch people deeply and open their eyes to a new perspective on themselves and the world. To that end, I think you need artists who are not only great at their craft but also give of themselves totally and have insight into the state of being human.

San Francisco Opera’s world premiere production of Girls of the Golden West runs November 21 to December 10. For details and ticket information, follow our box office links below.

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