Mary Magdalene has inspired musicians since the very beginning of musical theater. A case can be made that opera itself can be traced back to the Fleury Abbey in St. Benoit-Sur-Loire where the first medieval musical mystery play was performed during Holy Week by the monastic community as an act of devotion. Quem Queritas told the story of Mary Magdalene coming to the tomb on Easter morning, and the liturgical drama was designed to bring a palpable sense of emotion to the audience. Opera today is no different- even when written by composers who themselves do not identify with Christianity. The past few years have seen modern composers wrestling with how to bring the Gospel narrative to a primarily secular human audience. After all, as even one of my atheist friends has admitted, "What could possibly be more riveting than the story of Jesus? You have passion, betrayal, life, death, agony and a happy ending!"
Two of the most ambitious productions premiered last year. Mark Adamo's opera The Gospel of Mary Magdalene had its debut at the San Francisco Opera. Its complex story wove together a narrative based on both the four Gospels of the Bible with many of the apocryphal texts rediscovered in Egypt, such as The Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Mary and Dialogue of the Savior. I was lucky enough to work closely with the opera as I led workshops for the staff, cast and board on the history, conducted "talk back" sessions after every controversial performance. I had a series of delightful meetings with the brilliant, ebullient and irrepressible Mark Adamo that helped inform my writing of the program notes for the production, which you can read by clicking on the link below:
Just months before Adamo's opera took center stage in San Francisco, Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic toured the world performing John Adams's The Gospel of the Other Mary (see clips below). The Mary Magdalene of this semi-staged oratorio was polar opposites from the wise, self possessed, fully embodied and confident heroine Sasha Cooke brought to vivid life in San Francisco . Rather, in John Adam's imagination, Mary Magdalene is actually a tortured, tormented and suicidal version of Mary of Bethany, running a halfway house for indigent women with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus.
These two major works could not be more different in perspective and approach. To one man, she is a beautiful sexually liberated fountain of wisdom united in a creative spiritual partnership with her soulmate; for the other, she is a political radical abused by an uncaring system while trying to make a difference amongst the poor and marginalized. This just underscores how Mary Magdalene is a magnificent screen on which we project our own hopes, fear and longings, and it brings us back to the central question: who is Mary Magdalene for you ?