J. Henry Fair

Baritone Nathan Gunn, left, is Yeshua and soprano Sasha Cooke is Mary Magdalene in "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene."

SF Opera takes on provocative new work in 'Magdalene'

Published: Sunday, Jun. 16, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 3AANDE
Last Modified: Tuesday, Jun. 18, 2013 - 9:32 am

In this country, commissioning an opera offering an unconventional take on the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene might be seen as a bold move.

Few opera company directors would touch such material, yet such risks have proved no obstacle for San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley.

As the commissioner of such operas as the Civil War-themed "Appomattox" and the 9/11 opera "Heart of a Soldier," Gockley is no stranger to provocative works.

And so it was no surprise that Gockley gave the go-ahead to composer Mark Adamo to write "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene."

The opera gets its world premiere Wednesday with a six-performance run at the War Memorial Opera House. The cast features baritone Nathan Gunn as Yeshua and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Magdalene.

Adamo is the composer and librettist of the highly regarded operas "Little Women" and "Lysistrata." Gockley commissioned both operas while general director of the Houston Grand Opera. For a third commission, Gockley had promised Adamo the opportunity to put up a grand opera.

The concept for the opera did not bloom for Adamo until he came across Joan Acocella's magazine story "The Saintly Sinner" that ran in the New Yorker in 2006. In that story, Acocella tackled the image of Magdalene as a prostitute and repentant sinner by plumbing the scholarly work on old and recently discovered Gnostic gospels – including the gospel of St. Thomas.

"The article gave me the idea that if the texts existed by which you could come up with a credible human and original version of the story we only know through somewhat magical embellishments, that would really be worth doing," said Adamo. "And that would, authentically, be a grand opera."

The writing of the opera demanded that Adamo delve deeply into both the canonical and Gnostic gospels.

"I didn't want to make the story up out of nothing. I wanted the invention in the piece to come from something credible," said Adamo.

Writing the opera would take five years, starting with a treatment that was 12 pages long.

Gockley, who had moved from the directorship of Houston to San Francisco, also became enthralled by the Acocella article.

"I had read 'The Da Vinci Code' book and was intrigued by aspects of the Magdalene character, and the relationships she had with Jesus and Peter," said Gockley. "It's rich subject matter – that of Peter and Mary competing for the soul of Jesus, and the idea of physical and spiritual love being inseparable."

For Adamo, who is 51 years old and openly gay, delving into the murky territory when physical love intermixes with spiritual love proved fertile ground – and relevant, too.

Adamo grew up in the New Jersey community of Willingboro Township in a Catholic, Italian American family. As a youth, Adamo served as an altar boy and sang in the church choir.

"This subject matter, it was easy for me, because I speak this language," he said.

It's a language that carries a lot of dogma. And for Adamo it is onerous dogma.

"For my mother, religion was a great source of consolation, but she was drummed out of the church because she got divorced," he said.

More recently, Adamo realized that he was not going to marry someone that the Catholic Church would approve of. Adamo has been married to composer John Corigliano since 2008.

With "Magdalene," Adamo wanted to convey the tension and power play that existed between Peter and Mary – a tension he says is clearly conveyed in the Gnostic texts he researched.

"I used the texts for drama, not law," he said.

Musically, Adamo felt strongly that the opera should not stray from a contemporary sound, "because all of us know these characters, and they really feel like contemporary figures."

Adamo said he sees Jesus as a contemporary figure, not an ancient one, and that many Christians see him the same way.

"To that extent, I thought this opera needed to have as contemporary a sound as possible," said Adamo.

Musically, Adamo described the opera as having an "American sound," with harmonics that owe a nod to Maurice Ravel and Paul Dukas. "It's more a tonal score than not," he said.

In writing the libretto, Adamo mined conventions from American musical theater. "Not so much in sensibility but in technique," he said.

He was influenced, he said, by the work of Stephen Sondheim. The story and music begin in a tight symmetry of a theater song, and as the opera evolves, these morph into large-scale paragraphs, as is the case with Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd."

Adamo may have structured the drama so that it is rooted in what he found in the Gnostic and canonical texts, but the audience is left to its own devices about where the character of Mary Magdalene fits in the life of Jesus.

Adamo said using extreme poetic license for the Magdalene story would not have served the project well.

"There would not be any reason to do this piece if all you were doing was scrawling a graffito across the New Testament," he said.


What: A San Francisco Opera production

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and July 2; 8 p.m. June 22, 25, 28 and July 5; 2 p.m. July 7

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

Tickets: $22-$271

Information: (415) 864-3330; www.sfopera.com

Call The Bee'sEdward Ortiz, (916) 321-1071. Follow him on Twitter @edwardortiz..>

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