Poor Mary Magdalene. All she wants is a little sleep, but the junkie in the jail cell next to hers is screaming in agony from withdrawal. As Mary tries to understand the addict's pain, a chorus sings “Howl ye, howl ye, for the day of the Lord is at hand.” Confused? Welcome to The Gospel According to the Other Mary, the season closer for the LA Philharmonic, which begins today.
With a libretto by director Peter Sellars and music by John Adams, The Gospel tells the New Testament stories of Lazarus — the dead man brought to life by Christ — and the crucifixion. Central to both events (according to Roman Catholicism) was Mary Magdalene, who was Lazarus' sister and the only disciple to stand by Jesus at his execution. She will be played by Kelley O'Connor, above.
Intercutting this story are modern poems, quotes from Dolores Huerta and Dorothy Day, and other anachronistic texts that counterpoint the Biblical passages.
Adams and Sellars have a gift for religious and political controversy. Their first collaboration, Nixon in China, was widely misunderstood as inappropriately glorifying Mao Tse-Tung and/or Nixon. Their next opera, The Death of Klinghoffer — about Palestinian terrorists hijacking the Achilles Lauro — has provoked much negative publicity. Most American opera companies, including co-commissioner LA Opera, will not produce it.
Their new project should piss off fundamentalists. The Bible has little information about Mary Magdalene, other than she was close to Jesus, had demons cast out of her, and was the first person to report that Christ rose from the dead. In 591, Pope Gregory slut-shamed Mary — because she used perfume, and you know what kind of women do that — and that characterization has stuck ever since. Sellars and Adams have scraped off the historical grime, viewing Mary instead as a downtrodden woman attempting to come to terms with Jesus' teachings.
Thankfully the LA Philharmonic is not afraid to challenge audiences, both musically and in terms of subject matter. In February, they presented the U.S. premiere of a Louis Andriessen opera in which a literary pornographer plays S&M games with her psychiatrist and jumps her dad's bones.
John Adams' music for The Gospel is not his trademark giddy minimalism or goofy exuberance; it contains some of his darkest and most eerie writing to date. His score calls for cimbalom — a Hungarian hammered dulcimer — which along with the harp, piano, and tuned cowbells creates a new jangly section for the orchestra. The part of Jesus is sung by three countertenors simultaneously, as if Jesus had his own harmonizer.
Mary Magdalene's part is for a virtuosic mezzo-soprano who can sing repeated notes at the top of her range, and later drop to an incredibly low E below middle C. The sexy O'Connor — previously heard at Walt Disney Concert Hall singing Peter Lieberson's Neruda Songs and Osvaldo Golijov's Ainadamar — will premiere the role. Peep her video blog (above) describing the challenges of learning to sing classical music that no one else has ever performed before.
Gustavo Dudamel conducts the world premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams and Peter Sellars, today, May 31through June 3 at Walt Disney Concert Hall