A study guide Prepared by Virginia Opera

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The Girl of the Golden West



A study guide

Prepared by Virginia Opera


Cast of Characters 2

Brief plot summary 3

Full synopsis with musical examples 5

Historical Background 14

Discussion questions 22

A Short History of Opera 23

The Operatic Voice 25

Opera Production 26

Glossary of Operatic Terms 27



Music by Giacomo Puccini

Libretto by Carlo Zangarini and Geulfo Civinini

Adapted from the play The Girl of the Golden West by David Belasco

First performance on Dec. 10, 1910 at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York City


MINNIE, proprietress of the Polka Saloon Soprano

JACK RANCE, sheriff Baritone

DICK JOHNSON, a.k.a.Ramerrez, a bandit Tenor

NICK, bartender at the Polka Tenor

ASHBY, a Wells Fargo agent Bass

SONORA, a miner Baritone

TRIN, a miner Tenor

SID, a miner Baritone

BELLO (a.k.a Handsome), a miner Baritone

HARRY, a miner Tenor

JOE, a miner Baritone

HAPPY, a miner Baritone

JIM LARKENS, a miner Bass


WOWKLE, Billy’s squaw Mezzo soprano

JAKE WALLACE, a traveling minstrel Baritone

JOSÉ CASTRO, a member of Ramerrez’s gang Bass


Men of the mining camp

Brief Plot Summary

Act 1

Time: 1849. Place: The interior of the Polka Saloon in a mining camp at the base of the Cloudy Mountains in California.

A group of gold-rush miners converge on the Polka at sunset. Poker games begin at gaming tables as Nick pours out glasses of whiskey. A traveling minstrel, Jake Wallace, sings a sentimental song, causing a homesick man to break down in tears. The miners all chip in to finance his passage home. Nick is approached by two miners, each of whom quietly asks for his help in wooing Minnie, the owner of the saloon; he assures each in turn that Minnie returns their affection. When Sid is discovered to be cheating, the miners prepare to lynch him; Sheriff Rance steps in to settle the dispute. Ashby enters; the Wells Fargo agent is hot on the trail of the notorious bandit Ramerrez. Tempers flare when Rance and Sonora argue over which of them will marry Minnie. Before violence can erupt, Minnie enters; order is quickly restored. A few miners gather around to hear Minnie’s Bible lesson on Psalm 51. The men disperse, leaving Rance alone with Minnie. When he confesses his feelings for her, she quickly reminds him that he is married; recalling her happy childhood, she describes her own vision of romantic happiness.
A stranger enters, introducing himself as Dick Johnson from Sacramento, Minnie recognizes him from a prior encounter. Rance is suspicious of Johnson, but Minnie vouches for him. Minnie and Johnson dance as some miners hum a simple waltz tune. A bandit named Castro is brought in; he offers to lead Rance to Ramerrez’s hideout. In an aside to Johnson, Castro discloses his purpose in being captured is to lead the men on a wild goose chase, giving Johnson (in reality Ramerrez) the opportunity to rob the Polka. The men depart with Castro; leaving Minnie and Johnson alone. They exchange confidences, with Minnie confessing she has never been kissed. Minnie shows Johnson the miner’s hiding-place for their gold; he vows to protect it. Minnie invites him to visit her that evening in her cabin.
Act 2

Time: the same evening. Scene: Minnie’s mountain cabin.

Billy and Wowkle, alone with their baby, plan their wedding. Minnie enters; sending Billy away, she primps while Wowkle prepares a supper for two. Johnson arrives; Minnie describes her simple but happy life. Wowkle leaves amid a raging snowstorm. Alone now, Johnson and Minnie kiss. Suddenly ashamed, Johnson begins to leave but the trail has been covered with snow. He and Minnie declare their love. When they are interrupted by Rance, Ashby and Nick; Johnson hides. Rance brings the news that Johnson is the bandit Ramerrez. When Rance says Ramerrez’s trail ends at Minnie’s cabin, she denies having seen him. As the men depart, Minnie angrily accuses Johnson of lying. He denies that he would have robbed the Polka, claiming that Minnie has inspired him to seek a new life. Minnie orders him to leave; he plunges into the snowstorm. Shots are heard; Minnie finds Johnson at her door, badly wounded. She helps him into the loft of her cabin. Rance returns, convinced that Johnson is there. Minnie defiantly says she is alone. As Rance declares his love for her, drops of Johnson’s blood fall onto his hand. In desperation, Minnie proposes a game of cards. Should Rance win, Minnie will offer herself to him; if Minnie wins, Rance must let Johnson go. Hiding cards in her stocking to cheat, Minnie wins the game; Rance abruptly leaves.
Act 3

Time: one week later, early dawn. Scene: the edge of a pine forest.

Rance and Nick marvel that Minnie could love a bandit like Ramerrez. Ashby and some miners excitedly bring news that Wells Fargo agents are hot on the bandit’s trail. Johnson, bound with ropes, is led into the forest clearing to an exultant Rance. The men prepare to hang Johnson on the spot. Johnson makes one final request: that Minnie not know his fate and believe him free. As the noose is lowered, Minnie enters on horseback with pistol drawn. Holding the men at gunpoint, Minnie demands Johnson’s release, reminding them of the kindness she has always shown them. One by one, the miners relent, unable to deny Minnie her chance at happiness. As the miners bid her farewell, Johnson and Minnie ride away to begin a new life together.

Full Synopsis With Musical Examples
Act 1

A brief but tumultuous orchestral prelude introduces two important themes that will recur throughout the opera, often in succession. A descending chain of whole-tone chords (Example 1)

Represents both the wild environment of the untamed California Sierras and the correspondingly wild existence of the men and women who live and work there in a society of lawless violence and rough justice. It will hereafter be referred to as the “untamed lawlessness” theme.

Example 1

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