The snow-capped peaks stretch as far as the eye can see as my plane swings low over the high Sierra Nevada before heading for the azure waters of the Pacific. Gazing out of the window on a mild morning in late Fall, valleys cut with the blue ribbons of rivers recall those epic 19th-century Bierstadt oil paintings. Closer to the ocean, the round-topped, lower-lying mountains flanked by majestic Californian greenery flash yellow in the sunlight offering the incoming visitor an delightfully literal welcome to ‘The Golden West’.

It’s a terrain intimately familiar to John Adams who for 40 years has enjoyed the solitude of a cabin perched 6,000 feet up in the Sierra Buttes as well as hiking the local trails with family and pointer dogs. Now, in his 70th-birthday year, the composer who has described his translation from New Hampshire to California back in 1971 as “numinous”, has written an opera set just down the road from his airy retreat. It’s not a work of contemporary politics like the pieces that made his name in the 1980s and 90s, but one set amidst the get-rich-quick scramble of the Californian Gold Rush. Six weeks before my flight...

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