Adamo’s new “Mary Magdalene” opera won’t take traditional Jesus story as gospel

June 11, 2013
By Wynne Delacoma

Sasha Cooke and Nathan Gunn in Mark Adamo’s “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene,” which opens at San Francisco Opera June 19.

The women in the life of Jesus Christ have been receiving a lot of attention lately.

This spring Broadway saw a short-lived run of Colm Toibin’s 2011 play The Testament of Mary, a show starring Fiona Shaw that looked at Christ’s life through the eyes of his mother struggling to make sense of his death.  Last year in Los Angeles John Adams unveiled his newest oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a co-commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic and London’s Barbican Center.

This month Mary Magdalene (the “other Mary” of Adams’ oratorio) gets another turn in the spotlight. On June 19 San Francisco Opera gives the world premiere of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a full-length opera the company commissioned from composer/librettist Mark Adamo.  Starring mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Mary and baritone Nathan Gunn as Yeshua (Jesus), the opera will have seven performances through July 7. Michael Christie is the conductor.

Beginning by at least the 4th century, most Christian traditions defined Mary Magdalene as a minor player in Christ’s life. Over the centuries she came to be portrayed as a repentant sinner, sometimes as a former prostitute, who began following Christ after he forgave her sins. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John identify her as the one who visited Christ’s tomb and first reported the news of his resurrection. But none puts her at the center of Christ’s life nor counts her among his most important disciples.

In 1945, however, a jar containing manuscripts from a very early Christian sect was discovered in rural Egypt. Coming to be known as the Gnostic Gospels, the manuscripts contained alternative versions of Christ’s life that ranked Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ “beloved” disciple and hinted that she and Christ had married. Scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries had studied similar fragments, but the 1945 discovery at Nag Hammadi transformed the discussion.  As the manuscripts were translated, a stream of studies and books about the Gnostic writings as well as Mary Magdalene’s role in Christ’s life began and continues to this day. (The Gnostic gospels are also a major plot point in the 2003 publishing phenomenon, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown.)

In Adamo’s opera, Mary Magdalene is the equal of the disciple Peter, and she becomes Jesus’s lover. Peter and Mary disagree about Christ’s central message. Should it be used to rouse the Jews against Roman oppression, as Peter argues, or is the message more transcendent? Shifting between the present day and Christ’s era, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene raises profound questions. Among them are why is the idea of a married Jesus so anathema? Why is the image of charismatic, intellectually curious woman like Mary Magdalene working alongside Christ so outlandish?

Adamo began thinking about the Mary Magdalene story as an opera approximately eight years ago. He already had written two well-received operas on commission from the Houston Grand Opera: Little Women, based on the Louisa May Alcott book, in 1998 and Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess, inspired by the Aristophanes’ comedy, in 2005. When David Gockley, Houston Opera’s long-time general director, moved to San Francisco Opera in 2006, he and Adamo began discussing a third project.

Mark Adamo

“The idea was to do something for the large theater both technically and, if you will, culturally,” said Adamo. “Not to do a small story blown up, but to do a story that really needed those forces rather than [one that] could merely withstand their opulence.”

While he and Gockley discussed a new project, Adamo recalled reading an intriguing article about the Gnostic Gospels and the image of Mary Magdalene through the ages. The article, by Joan Acocella, appeared in a February 2006 issue of the New Yorker.

“It made a fascinating case for the existence of these other, equally ancient, texts,” said Adamo. “It implied a version of the New Testament that would be not only essentially different, but more based in the human world as we understand it. It was potentially more noble, more nervy than the version we’ve inherited, which is encrusted with miracle.

“As someone raised in the Christian tradition,” he said, “I’ve always found it somewhat disturbing that too many people seem to focus on the resurrection or the virgin birth or the turning of water into wine rather than ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

The opera also includes the Gnostic Gospels’ hints that Jesus was regarded as illegitimate, born out of wedlock.

Gockley saw Mary Magdalene as the natural next step in his collaboration with Adamo. Gockley commissioned Little Women for Houston Grand Opera’s young artists program. Though a chamber opera, it was so successful it eventually wound up being scheduled on Houston’s main season. Lysistrata was slightly bigger in scale, but it first played in the smaller theater of the Wortham Theater Center, Houston Grand Opera’s home base. For their third project, Gockley and Adamo wanted a big opera for San Francisco’s big theater.

“There were a number of ideas,” said Gockley. “We went through various treatments of the Dracula theme, but it just didn’t gel with me. Then all of a sudden out of the blue there was this Mary Magdalene thing, and my interest was piqued.”

Adamo thought the Gnostic texts offered an enticing way to come up with what he calls “a credibly human original of the story that we know only through its mythic variations.”

“If these texts exist,’’ he said, “could you restore the previously silenced female characters to their roles that are implied but not stated? What would it feel like?  And that struck me as an idea that not only was big enough for a 3,500- seat house, but that only a 3,500-seat house could contain it. It would be one of the rare pieces that is not better with four people and a chamber orchestra.”

In addition to Mary Magdalene and Yeshua, the cast includes Miriam (an alternative name for Jesus’ mother) sung by soprano Maria Kanyova and Peter, sung by tenor William Burden. Other characters include two policemen tailing Jesus and his followers, whom they consider to be anti-government subversives. A chorus, wearing 21st-century clothes, raises questions about what Christ’s message really means.

“So much about the piece,” said director Kevin Newbury, “is literally about digging into history–uncovering these Gnostic Gospels and looking at the story through a contemporary lens and through the lens of Mary Magdalene. What if we did know her story? How would that have changed our approach to the faith, the mythology, the story of Jesus and Mary and Miriam?

“So we decided to set the whole production in an actual archeological dig. When the audience comes in, right away they see this beautiful space with several layers as though it’s dug into the earth.  It feels like the kind of archeological space people uncover when they’re building a new building and all construction has to stop while they uncover what’s underneath.

“We see construction lights and scaffolding and a top level that feels like it’s opening up to the sky. That allows us to separate the modern chorus from the Biblical characters who are telling the story from below.” (Sets are by David Korins, costumes by Constance Hoffman and lighting by Christopher Maravich.)

Adamo’s music is lyrical, but with the free-ranging harmonic colors that mark it as distinctly contemporary. Gockley recalled his first encounter with Adamo’s score for Little Women. “It was some of the most heartfelt and effective theatrical music I had heard,” he said.

Michael Christie, who will conduct Mary Magdalene, praised Adamo’s sense of operatic structure.

“I’ve been a colleague of Mark’s for a number of years,” said Christie, “so I’m very familiar with his musical language. The one thing that’s really fun about the opera is that it’s structured very much in a classical form in terms of things like how an act will progress–how the chorus is included, where the arias and duets occur. You feel very at home in it. It’s not like you’re cast off in some other dramatic place where you don’t know where you’re going.

“Another thing that’s nice,” he said, “is that a lot of things are repeated. It’s very melodic, and melodies and musical gestures presented by major characters often come back when a similar emotional stress has happened. It’s a little like leitmotifs in that respect.

“The music’s expressive nature is so obvious when you listen to it,” said Christie. “It’s so thoughtfully done without being academic. It’s very tuneful. There’s nothing that feels disjointed in that stereotypical modern music way.”

Sasha Cooke, the production’s Mary Magdalene, is known for her contemporary roles, including Kitty Oppenheimer, a role she sang at the Metropolitan Opera premiere of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic in 2008. She said she was drawn to Mary Magdalene by both the story and Adamo’s lush score.

“The mystery surrounding her, all of the unknowns or debates or controversy, the multiple Marys, different versions of the story,” said Cooke, “all of that is just so fascinating to dive into. But at the same time, Mark Adamo has given us a very clear picture of what his vision is, his version. And also his music. There are three arias for Mary Magdalene that are really exquisite and should go into the mezzo-soprano canon.”

The biggest challenge for the singers, and everyone involved in the production, is making sure that the principal characters emerge onstage as believable human beings. Audiences probably will come to the theater with much deeper pre-conceived notions about the characters in Mary Magdalene than the notions they might have about familiar operatic characters like Violetta or Siegfried. As Adamo puts it, Yeshua, Miriam, Mary Magdalene and Peter are figures that many listeners believe in, in the religious sense of the word.

“I think, in a way, it will be disarming for people to see Mary Magdalene, even more Yeshua, brought to life in a moving body,” said Cooke. “We’re used to seeing these still images and imagining them as icons, as paintings. I do struggle with things like how did she move her hands? How did she walk? How did she sit?

“The whole idea of the piece is equality,” Cooke said, “that she and Yeshua were soul mates, that they were intended, that they were in love. If we took off the names and just showed this opera as Gus and Sally, everyone would be completely drawn in to their story and feel akin to it. But you put the names Mary and Yeshua, and you think ‘Wait? Why am I troubled by this?’ As a sensitive person, I worry about people feeling offended.”

“San Francisco is a fairly broad-minded city,” said Gockley. “After the first of the year we began our efforts to get the idea out in the community through panels and presentations and videos. We started with the Bay Area Interfaith Council. We tried in advance to explain that we were doing this and our approach. We are not trying to replace scripture or rewrite scripture. This is one artist’s individual telling of the story through his own lens.”

Cooke hopes that audiences will arrive with open minds and a willingness to explore their own reactions to issues the opera explores.

“What is wrong with Yeshua having a mate? What is wrong with a woman being included amongst his disciples?” she asked, listing some of the questions raised by the opera. “Religion–What a fascinating subject to talk about, something so personal to each of us.”

Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene opens at San Francisco Opera June 19.  For information about performances and other ancillary events, go to

One Response to “Adamo’s new “Mary Magdalene” opera won’t take traditional Jesus story as gospel”

  1. Posted Jun 17, 2013 at 4:36 pm by Robin Siefkin

    Saw the final dress rehearsal on 6/16 with my father and his wife. Fabulous, provocative story and staging. If I can figure out how to get low price tickets, I will see a “real” performance.