Leonardo Da Vinci
Sometimes, a way to see something more clearly is actually to exaggerate what it is not. As a piano teacher, I marvelled that sometimes the most effective way to coax the most musical performance out of a student was to ask them to play it in the opposite way they intended first. If it was a sweet and tender lullaby, to play it once roughly, coursely and crudely. If the song was to be bold , fiery and dramatic, to play it as insipidly as possible. It was amazing how doing so would liberate other possibilities and sensitize the student to deeper nuances in the music. It was akin to my process of trying to copy a Renaissance sketch of the Madonna, when I realized that to really make the portrait come to life, I had to deepen the dark shadows around the face far more intensely.
I thought of this yesterday as I sat through the dress rehearsal of Mark Adamo's opera The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, because the portrayal of the Blessed Mother (here named Miriam) is as opposite a portrayal as you could imagine from the image that has been painted for two thousand years of a beautiful maiden of utter composure, equanimity and grace. Even the images of Mary at the cross throughout the centuries depict a woman sustained by her faith, surrendered to God and able to find peace of heart.
In this opera, she is emotionally distraught in every scene. In perpetual conflict with her "wounded, wounding son", she becomes more unhinged as the drama is played out. Hers is the highest voice on stage, and it conveys less the ethereal realm of the angels than the Madwoman of the Attic. She is a woman with a troubled, dark past- and she is no virgin. She cringes as her eldest son is pursued by taunting shouts of "mamzer" and "bastard" The wounds Jesus bears from being a social outcast are deep, and in response, he seems to despise her. After being rejected once more by him, she laments with rising hysteria, "How many times must I forgive you, seven times seven? Seven times seven? Seventy times seven?" . In a climactic scene, she reveals to Mary Magdalene that she contemplated abortion, and in the finale of the opera, she is a broken woman, her hair turned white with grief and shock, craddling a mock baby in her arms.
It is a portrayal that many audience members will find disturbing, perhaps shocking and quite likely blasphemous. It certainly unsettled me. And it is indeed the opposite, the shadow image, of the picture of Mother Mary that I hold in my heart. And yet, by confronting this new image, it has also brought me to a deeper and more nuanced appreciation for her.
The stark reality of those times was that an unwed girl could well have been stoned to death for an illegitimate pregnancy . The kind of courage it would have taken to go forth with an unwanted pregnancy if alternatives were thrust upon you was quite miraculous in and of itself. The shadow of suspicion and scorn that would have clung to the family from Nazareth would have been a painful cross to bear. And the truth is, Jesus does deny his mother and speak contemptuously of her at least twice in the Bible: at the wedding in Cana (when Mary suggests that Jesus perform his first miracle by replenishing the wine, he publicly rebukes her , "Woman, what has that to do with me?") and at the temple (when he is told that his mothers and brothers are at the gate. Jesus denies them as family, saying "You who follow me are my family").
In its radical staging of Mary as an emotionally fragile, wounded and unhinged mother, the opera has actually made me more appreciative of the strength, courage, trust and faith that we see in Mary peering through her few appearances in the New Testament. Mark Adamo has placed lines of the son (such as the "Seven times seven") in his mother's mouth, but that does make me wonder: what did Jesus learn from her? what did she teach him? Biblical scholars have suggested that Mary's longest speech, the beautiful Magnificat, is not so much a pious and placid acceptance of her fate but a call for social justice that serves as a prelude and foreshadowing of Christ's Sermon on the Mount.
The Hindus have a saying that the process of finding God is a process of discarding one idea after another- "neti, neti": not this, not this. In a paraphrase of TS Eliot, in order to arrive at what we are we have to go through the way that we are not. I am grateful for the challenges that Mark Adamo's opera presents for me to wrestle with his shadowy image of Mother Mary, it is helping me come to a deeper and truer affirmation of who she is for me.