SF Opera gambles on 'Gospel of Mary Magdalene'
This June 16, 2013 photo released by the San Francisco Opera is Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene in the summer opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/San Francisco Opera, Cory Weaver)
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — Best known for his modest chamber opera "Little Women," composer Mark Adamo was looking for a more ambitious project to tackle when he happened upon a magazine article about Mary Magdalene.
"I had been thinking if I was going to do a grand opera, I didn't want it to be "The Summer I Lost My Kitten" blown up with a large orchestra," Adamo said in an interview. "It needed to be a big subject, something that was authentically better in a big theater."
The result, which had its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera on Wednesday night, is "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," a radical retelling of the biblical story of Jesus. It's about as large-scale as new operas come these days, with a cast of 19 soloists, 48 choristers and an orchestra of 65 musicians.
Adamo, a gay man and son of a divorced mother, was raised as a Catholic but struggled with the church's strict views on sexuality. He said a 2006 article by Joan Acocella in The New Yorker struck a chord with him in tracing how over the centuries the shadowy figure of Mary Magdalene had been turned into a repentant prostitute and then (notably in Dan Brown's best-seller "The Da Vinci Code") re-imagined as Jesus' wife.
"I started to see it as the story of a woman who is overvaluing her sexual relationships and a guy who for his own complicated family history doesn't want to hear anything about sexuality at all," Adamo said. "Neither of these people is unknown to us as moderns."
This June 16, 2013 photo released by the San Francisco Opera is Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene with the San Francisco Opera chorus in the background in the summer opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/San Francisco Opera, Cory Weaver)
He sent his idea to David Gockley, head of the San Francisco Opera and the man who while running the Houston Grand Opera had commissioned Adamo's two previous stage pieces, "Little Women," and an adaptation of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata."
"It took some time for me to come on board," Gockley said. "But I eventually came to see it as a wonderful subject for an opera."
He did, however, expect the subject matter would prove controversial and has been surprised at the lack of protest.
"There has been scarcely a ripple from the organized faiths for a piece that debunks the virgin birth, the resurrection, and the celibacy of Jesus," Gockley said. "Just a few people at some of our community outreach events who have stood up and said, 'How dare you!'"
The opera is one of three recent theatrical works to re-examine the role of women in the gospels. John Adams' oratorio, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary," depicts Mary Magdalene in both biblical and modern settings, and Colm Toibin's play "The Testament of Mary," portrays the Virgin Mary as an embittered woman who doubts her son's immortality.