from A Helen Adam Reader (2007)

Notes on Helen Adam's San Francisco's Burning

Kristin Prevallet

From 1974-1985, Charles Ruas conducted interviews with notable 20th century writers, including Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Eudora Welty and Tennessee Williams. These were published in an anthology, Conversations with American Writers (Knopf, 1984). He produced "The Audio Experimental Theater," a radio program featuring experimental performances on WBAI (the Pacifica radio station of New York City committed to producing shows that document social justice and culture). In 1977, Susan Howe and Ruas interviewed Helen Adam.

In 1977, Ruas worked with Helen and Pat Adam to produce a radio broadcast of San Francisco's Burning. In this third incarnation of the ballad opera, the sisters worked with Ruas and musical director Rob Wynne to interweave Al Carmine's score with traditional Scottish tunes (along with Shubert and Mozart). As Bob Hershon (the poet and publisher who reads the part of Spangler Jack) recalls: "I remember sitting squeezed next to Robert Duncan on Helen's narrow studio couch, the two of us earnestly singing and trying to make the lyrics work with some Schubert recordings Helen had gotten from the library and was playing on a tinny portable phonograph. She was convinced that the lyrics were a perfect fit with the Schubert melodies (you can imagine) and she beamed with delight as she 'conducted' us."

Musical director Rob Wynne recalls that the recording was "structured chaos." He writes, "It took a few months to pull it all together, often ending up after a session at Helen & Pat's apartment, surrounded by her collection of agates and stones, in which she saw images and stories. She always served celery filled with peanut butter, a bizarre but oddly delicious combination." Charles Ruas remembers that the great blackout in the summer of 1977 happened while they were recording in the studio. During the walk back to her apartment, "Helen talked about how much she loved the darkness covering the city and all the people scurrying about -- she thought the God Anubis was passing over the city." Given her ultimate disappointment with the two professional composers (Jepson and Carmines), it is possible that this version of the opera is the closest to Adam's vision. She was, after all, in complete control over the music.

© 2007 Kristin Prevallet