By Cy Musiker

Composer Mark Adamo has made some beautiful operas out of classic stories. He wrote the music and libretto for an operatic version of Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women,” among the most produced American operas today. And he gave a modern turn to Greek drama in his interpretation of Aristophanes’ “Lysistrata.” Now Adamo has finished a commission for the San Francisco Opera called “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.” It’s his version of the story of Jesus, his disciples and a woman whose role in the story has always been up for debate. Adamo’s version mixes orthodox tradition with a radical interpretation of Christianity’s central narrative.

Nathan Gunn (Yeshua) and Sasha Cooke (Mary Magdalene). (Photo: J. Henry Fair/San Francisco Opera)
Nathan Gunn (Yeshua) and Sasha Cooke (Mary Magdalene). (Photo J. Henry Fair/San Francisco Opera)

You could say that Adamo has been thinking about this Christian drama since his South Jersey boyhood. His mother had divorced her first husband, who was abusive, and the church she loved barred her from taking Communion.

Adamo says there was something in that penalty that didn’t add up.

“I challenged my mother and said, ‘Why are you not angry? You’re sending us off to Catholic school and Mass and you would like to come with us, but you accept this idea that you can’t come because something you did ended up saving yours and our lives, but somebody said, ‘You colored outside the lines, and therefore you’re not welcome.’ Why aren’t you angry?’ So I got angry on her behalf.”

Adamo is gay and has a husband, and that, too, colors his relationship with his faith. But he didn’t imagine writing a New Testament opera until six years ago, when he read a New Yorker article about Mary Magdalene. She’s a biblical figure sometimes conflated with other Marys and often depicted as a prostitute forgiven and raised up by Jesus.

“It seemed to me that, in context, Mary Magdalene was the madwoman in the attic of the Christian tradition,” Adamo says. “Because she was associated with the body and sexuality, and she was the opposite of the stainless virgin.”

The New Yorker article also covered the 1945 discovery of the Gnostic Gospels, early Christian texts offering an alternative to the traditional Gospels. They present a Mary who is Jesus’ best pupil. And in her, Adamo saw a heroine for a new opera.

Adamo introduces Mary singing lines borrowed from the Old Testament Song of Songs, which uses sexual metaphors to express a spiritual longing for God. “My goal for this was to place sexuality in general and female sexuality in particular — to put that back into the center of the myth,” Adamo says.

Adamo spent a year researching the story and poured his learning into his libretto. It has 116 footnotes. But Adamo veers far from any of the traditional Gospels when he has Mary and Jesus become lovers and marry. Nathan Gunn, the baritone who sings the role of Jesus — called by his Hebrew name Yeshua in the opera — says that twist adds a crucial human dimension to the story.

“I know a lot of people get hung up on her being his lover,” Gunn says. “They fall in love. It’s a very human and beautiful thing.”

The role of Mary is sung by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who says the role brings an ancient mystery back to life. “One thing I love. I tell people I’m doing Mary Magdalene, they say, ‘Oh well, she could have been married to him.’ Why not? We don’t know.”

San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley says he’s ready for “Mary Magdalene” to stir controversy. “I’m kind of waiting for some kind of kerfuffle to happen, and yet the natives are quiet.” he says. A Roman Catholic radio show canceled an interview with Adamo, but he held a meeting to talk about the work with local priests and rabbis without incident.

More significantly, though, no other opera companies came forward to commission “Mary Magdalene” when Gockley went looking for help mounting this $1.2 million world premiere. He says some companies backed away, saying the subject matter is just too controversial.

“They admitted that to me,” Gockley says. “Others said, ‘We’re busy doing our own projects.’ But I knew when we took this on that it wasn’t going to be everybody’s cup of tea. And I’ve been proven right.”

But Adamo welcomes the scrutiny and says he expects a good number of critics and many an opera director will be in the audience on opening night. “The theatre is a safe place to talk about risky things,” he says, adding that he hopes audiences will understand that he’s not trying to scorn the Christian tradition.

“I love this tradition,” he says. “I would not have been able to write it as I wrote it, unless I thought the story would gain rather than lose nobility and credibility and passion if everyone involved was a human being, born into the same bodies that we are suffering through life with, and if they made momentous decisions guided by moral intuition and the light they had to see by.”

“The Gospel of Mary Magdalene” opens next Wednesday, June 19, at the San Francisco Opera.

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