Friends had invited us to join them at the San Francisco Opera House for a performance of “The Girl of the Golden West,” an opera about the California Gold Rush by the Italian composer Giacomo Puccini.
That last part — Puccini and the California Gold Rush — deserves some explanatory comments, but a bit later.
The second part of the S.F. experience was arriving in the city in time to watch a part of the 40th annual Gay Pride Day parade on Market Street.
As we emerged from the BART station, we could hear the roar of motorcycle engines and see people standing three or four deep on both sides of Market Street.
And then the “Dykes on Bikes,” riding four abreast on their Harleys, wheeled past us up Market Street to lead off the parade. Behind the lead group must have been a couple hundred women on two-wheelers, ranging from Harleys to motor scooters. The riders came in all shapes, sizes and appearances, garbed in every style clothing you could imagine.
Other parade units, including gay men on motorcycles and motorized muffins, followed. The international aspect of the celebration was seen in entries from Australia, England and Mexico — and I’m sure there were other countries represented as well.
The people watching along the parade route appeared to be a mix of gays, including a drag queen or two, and straights. I’d say the spectators, at least those around us, seemed pretty mainstream, including a couple from Tracy and a number of young students out for an adventure.
Anyway, it was quite a scene, one that I had seen briefly on television in past years, but one that was more interesting to observe firsthand. It wasn’t the Fourth of July parade in the Central Valley, that’s for sure, but it is less controversial than in the past. It’s come to be a slice of American life that, over the past four decades, has become part of the broad tapestry of our society. And in San Francisco, that tapestry is pretty broad.
After taking another short BART ride to the Civic Center station, we walked to Max’s Opera House Café on Van Ness Avenue for lunch, and then to the nearby San Francisco Opera House.
I had been to a couple of operas at the opera house over the past half-century, but this was my first visit in a long time.
And back to Puccini and the Gold Rush. The Italian composer wrote “The Girl of the Golden West” — “La Fanciulla del West” in Italian — in the early years of the 20th century from a play written by American author David Belasco.
The story takes place in a Sierra Nevada mining camp in 1849 at the beginning of the California Gold Rush. The central character is a woman, “Minnie,” who runs a tavern frequented by the miners.
Soprano Deborah Voigt plays Minnie with a voice that seemed to gain resonance as the opera progressed through three acts. Her love interest, “Dick Johnson,” a bandit who narrowly escapes the gallows, was played by Italian tenor Salvatore Licitra, whose soaring solos really impressed the nearly full house of opera-goers.
All the arias and dialogue are in Italian, which at times seemed strange. In one scene, a stranger comes into Minnie’s bar, The Polka, and orders a drink. One of the miners says, “Hey, he ordered water with his whiskey — he must be from San Francisco. We drink our whiskey straight.”
And another time, one of the miners wondered about “that fast-talking guy from Sacramento.” All of this in Italian, of course (with the English translation on the screen).
Puccini, who also composed “La Bohème” and “Madame Butterfly,” didn’t come up with any memorable arias in “The Girl of the Golden West,” and that must have limited its popularity, but the music is lyrical and easy on the ears.
This year’s production by the San Francisco Opera Co. marks the 100th birthday of the opera’s premiere performance in New York City in 1910. And who played Dick Johnson in 1910? None other than Enrico Caruso. His modern-day counterpart, Salvatore Licitra, did the legendary Italian tenor proud.
I’d say the performance was molto buono — very good, if I may flash an English translation at you.
• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, can be reached at 830-4234 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.