Or, an opera in fourteen tweets.*
This past Sunday, I had the good fortune to be invited by the San Francisco Opera to live tweet the final dress rehearsal of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which had its world premiere last night at the War Memorial Opera House. I remembered being very impressed by Adamo’s Little Women ten years earlier in New York (in fact, it was my introduction to contemporary opera), so I was looking forward to see what he would do with such a controversial subject.
It was an interesting experience to say the least. My fellow tweeters were an entertaining group and we had fabulous box seats. It was difficult at times to both follow the opera and be tweeting and reading the Twitter feed, but I thoroughly enjoyed myself. What follows are some of my random musings during the performance. Make of them what you will.
Adamo based this opera on both the Canonical and Gnostic Gospels. I was happy to have a thorough knowledge of both (thanks to Congregationalist Sunday School, a Jesuit university, and the work of scholars such as Bart Ehrman and Elaine Pagels) because otherwise I think I would have been as confused as some of the self-proclaimed “heathens” in my box.
As the opera begins, we see modern Christians (in what looks to be an archaeological dig in the Holy Land) lamenting the sexism that tarnishes their religious tradition. The chorus arrives to reveal and complete the “real” story with the discovery of the Nag Hammadi library, and introduces the Magdalene (Sasha Cooke) as a character out of the Song of Songs.
Very quickly we move into biblical times and experience the clash of Old Testament teachings via Tamar, the wife of Mary’s lover who wants her stoned. I couldn’t help but think of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. Luckily, Jesus (here called Yeshua, and played by Nathan Gunn), arrives just in time to save the day.
One thing I really enjoyed about this opera was the humor in Act One.
—How miserable is the body that depends on the body.
—Depends on the body.
And this lovely exchange for a Father’s Day:
It’s Yeshua, yes?… Your brother’s James? Your father… Right. That we won’t discuss.
This humor is perhaps why many of our tweets quickly grew quite irreverent.
While initially it is Miriam (Maria Kanyova), Yeshua’s guilt-ridden mother, who first warns Mary away from her son, it is Peter (William Burden) who turns out to be the villain of this particular passion play.
Peter tries to keep Mary from Yeshua and constantly rails against women, leading me to suspect he is either a closeted Republican or gamer (“Females are not worthy of this life.”).
Yeshua almost falls for his line, but the end of Act One sees the wedding of Yeshua and Mary, much to Peter’s dismay.
Even in our box of irreverent tweeters, you could tell people were somewhat discomfited by the sight of Jesus in bed with someone.
Yet everyone sounded so beautiful, it was hard not to be captivated by the love story. I was particularly impressed by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s gorgeous tone. She sounded positively angelic.
While the principals sang well, I wasn’t particularly struck by the opera’s music, although I felt the libretto offered a number of thought-provoking pieces and interpretations of this story. Repetition was used quite a bit, which mostly worked well. However, more than one tweeter noted that perhaps variations of “seven times seven” and “seventy times seven” came up too often.
Of course, this opera was never going to end well, and Act Two begins with the inevitable politicization of Yeshua’s movement and the road to crucifixion. Despite, or maybe because of, his own guilt for denying Yeshua, Peter’s anger towards Mary continues unabated, and even Miriam, who was the first to try to keep them apart, chastises Peter.
Overall, I liked the set, but was disappointed it remained the same for both acts. Additionally, its size and the way it was constructed prevented the production from being as dynamic as one might expect from the story being told. However, I loved the staging for the final scenes at the tomb, which, except for the oddity of Jesus descending to exit, were extremely moving.
I was very happy to have participated in this event and am eager to see how this opera is received now that it has had its premiere. While the story may be deemed controversial, I found it to be thoroughly researched and thoughtfully presented.