Tag: world premiere

Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

The San Francisco Opera’s summer season, which concluded this past weekend, featured the world premiere production of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. A work six years in development with a libretto written by the composer, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is an earnestly personal and thoroughly researched re-examination of the role of the main women in Jesus’s life—Mary Magdalene and his mother (who is called Miriam in the opera)—as well as an attempt to understand Jesus and his disciple Peter as flawed human beings.

Adamo’s recasting of the story of Jesus’s life is rooted in the so-called Gnostic Gospels, texts that were discovered in Egypt in 1945. Written in the first couple of centuries of the Christian church, these alternate tellings of Jesus’s history did not become part of the canonical texts that we are most familiar with. Nearly every discussion about the opera I have heard or read has made mention of the 116 clearly sourced footnotes in Adamo’s libretto, and though some have found them surprising or amusing, it cannot be denied that this opera is a serious inquiry on Adamo’s part, an attempt to filter scholarship through the lens of opera and theater. He has said specifically that he is not thumbing his nose at the story as it has traditionally been told; rather, he said in an NPR interview, “I love this tradition. I would not have been able to write as I wrote unless I thought the story would gain rather than lose nobility, credibility, and passion.”

The most non-traditional elements of this telling feature Mary Magdalene’s central role in Jesus’s life as his wife, one who is at his side as he preaches and who is a forceful counterweight to his disciple Peter. Also, rather than being the son of God born from an immaculate conception, Jesus is explicitly described as a bastard child of Miriam, who was a teenage bride impregnated by a man other than Joseph, and who was given the choice to abort but decided against it. It may be that the seriousness with which both Adamo and the San Francisco Opera approached the topic—talk-back discussions were held after each performance with Kayleen Asbo, a cultural historian and mythologist, and multiple ancillary events were held at Grace Cathedral in advance of the premiere—helped to deter any public protest regarding the work. Nonetheless, San Francisco Opera’s General Manger David Gockley, who had also commissioned Adamo’s previous two operas (Little Women and Lysistrata) when he was at Houston Grand Opera, did say that the topic scared away other opera companies, leaving San Francisco Opera as the sole commissioner.

This premiere production of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene luxuriated in exceptional American musical talent, spearheaded by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke singing and performing the title role with fervor and clarity throughout. Frequent stage partners Nathan Gunn and William Burden portrayed Yeshua (Jesus, in Hebrew) and Peter, respectively, with Burden delivering a particularly compelling performance during the Passion scene in which his cowardice leads him to deny his relationship with Yeshua. Soprano Maria Kanyova, who portrayed Pat Nixon in last season’s production of Nixon in China (covered in NewMusicBox here), returned to the company for the role of Miriam. Conductor Michael Christie, who, like Sasha Cooke, was making his first appearance with the San Francisco Opera, led the proceedings confidently, balancing the orchestra well with the singers, who had a great deal of text in English to deliver, and allowing Adamo’s varied and evocative orchestration to shine.

Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Adamo places Mary and Yeshua’s story within a contemporary framework by opening the opera with five “Seekers” dressed in contemporary clothes who enter the set while the house lights are still up, mirroring the audience members who are entering the house. The mammoth set designed by David Korins, which never moves in the course of the production, evokes an archeological dig site in which the Seekers voice their concern about modern-day religion: namely, that they—or perhaps we, or perhaps specifically Adamo—have been taught that the body is “unholy” and “the very source of sin,” and that this “poisonous” view of the physical and sexual self has caused years of hurt. And yet, the need to find a way to integrate their religion with the rest of their lives remains, and it sets up the rest of the opera as an attempt to “correct” and “complete” the story as it has been told traditionally. For most of the rest of the production, the Seekers remain on stage, often observing and commenting but sometimes interacting, acting as our avatars within the story as it develops.

For such a radical retelling of a canonical work, Adamo’s musical language is notably un-revolutionary; clarity of text delivery is prioritized through lyrical lines and repeated motives that move among various people throughout the opera, musically interweaving the characters’ lives. In the chorus’s frequent appearances throughout the work—the most effective being the crucifixion scene, where they violently deliver a version of the Dies Irae text, in Greek—Adamo often has them sing homophonically or in vocalise, making their pithy commentary clearly understandable. (The most memorable instance of this is when they interject footnotes into the action.)

Adamo has spoken openly of the challenges of his Catholic upbringing, as a gay man whose divorced mother continued to send him to church and Catholic school even after she was denied communion. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is clearly born from the desire to excavate that personal history through looking at the real people buried under two millennia of mythology. In this process of humanizing these characters, however, the holy and spiritual aspects of these figures are often left by the wayside. For this listener, the missing linchpin in this look at Jesus’s life was divinity: in this portrayal, it was hard to understand why Jesus gained the following and devotion that he did. In the scenes where Yeshua is preaching, he is given a fire and brimstone diatribe and a comic theatrical moment referencing circumcision, but holiness is notably absent. Yeshua invokes God only once in the entire production, when he is on the cross, forsaken. Nearly all other references to God are uttered by the women, and not necessarily in a reverential way. At best, the character of Yeshua seems almost a boorish bro; at worst, he might be perceived as a misogynistic and hypocritical charlatan. Even Miriam and Peter seem to mock Mary Magdalene at first for naively falling for Yeshua’s charismatic preaching. When the gathered crowd passionately declares him the Messiah, it is difficult to see what motivates them to do so.

Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene with the San Francisco Opera chorus in the background Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene with the San Francisco Opera chorus in the background
Photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Among the most significant “corrections” that the Seekers allude to in the opera’s prologue is the translation of John 20:17, which occurs in the final scene and which Adamo explains in his penultimate footnote:

Translated into Latin as Noli me tangere, or “Don’t touch me,” this line, over centuries, inspired thousands of paintings of a tearful grasping wench thrust aside by an angel bent on higher things: the very image of the Church’s ancient equation of women with sex and sin. But the original line, in Greek, means, as rendered here, “Do not hold on to me,” or “let me go.”

In the opera’s version of Mary Magdalene visiting the tomb, taken from the Gnostic Gospel of Mary, the crypt is not empty: the corpse is still there, but Yeshua’s ghost appears behind Mary. (The most questionable directorial choice of the production involved Yeshua’s unintentionally amusing ascension into the crypt by means of a hydraulic lift, and subsequent descending into heaven through the stage fog.) Their final duet, launched by Yeshua’s plea to let go of the ones we love, is perhaps the clearest instance of the influence of American musical theater on Adamo’s compositional language. Yeshua urges Mary to “tell them” his and her stories—essentially to spread the Gospel in her terms—a task that Adamo has taken on in this opera.

During the run of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, we saw the Supreme Court rulings on California’s Proposition 8 and DOMA, as well as Wendy Davis’s epic filibuster in Texas (and Governor Rick Perry’s subsequent comments about her as a teenage mother at a Right to Life conference). Directly across the street from the San Francisco Opera house is the City Hall where same-sex couples were issued marriage licenses during a brief window in 2004, and the plaza where San Francisco’s annual gay pride celebration was taking place. Within this context, Adamo’s opera, which aims to reconcile sexuality with a Christian life, and which argues for a woman’s right to possess a physical identity without abandoning spirituality, could not have found a more appropriate home than the San Francisco Opera.

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Photo by Michael Strickland

War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco Photo by Michael Strickland

Visitations: Theotokia and The War Reporter Premiere at Stanford University

The first time I tried to find the new Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University, I wound up half a mile in the opposite direction and face to face with several of Auguste Rodin’s tortured sculptures. The Stanford campus is a gorgeous, messy sprawl in the rolling hills west of Palo Alto, and it is easy to lose all sense of direction there. Signs point to nearby buildings, but it can be maddening to find one’s way beyond what the eye can see. This, however, is the classic Stanford experience: amidst the miles of wild grasses and coast live oaks, intellectual ideas—in juxtaposition to one’s expectations and carefully crafted intentions—find a way of becoming novel interdisciplinary realizations.

Bing Concert Hall

The intimate 842-seat Bing Concert Hall opened in January 2013 and hosted “Visitations,” a double-bill of one-act operas, on April 12 and 13.

Stanford was thus the perfect setting for the world premieres of Jonathan Berger’s two chamber operas, Theotokia and The War Reporter. Each work explores the interior psyche of men haunted by voices, presenting an expansive psychological inquiry in addition to a contained musical experience. Berger and his creative team, including librettist Dan O’Brien and director Rinde Eckert, treated this complex topic with an economy of means. Backed by an ensemble of nine instrumentalists, the four men of New York Polyphony, along with soprano Heather Buck, deftly covered all the singing roles. O’Brien’s lean text and Eckert’s straightforward direction also emphasized the intimate qualities of chamber opera.

New York Polyphony press photos, November, 2011.

The male vocal quartet New York Polyphony. Geoffrey Williams (far right) gave a tender and ferocious performance as a schizophrenic in Theotokia.
Photo by Chris Owyoung.

Theotokia, presented in eight brief scenes, eschews a traditional narrative arc for the fragmented world of poetry. Leon, performed by countertenor Geoffrey Williams, is a schizophrenic taunted by the voices of three religious figures (sung in virtuosic alternations by Buck). In the third scene, Leon, clothed in a drab, unbuckled straightjacket, expresses his frustration at not being able to quiet the voices though, significantly, not through song. Williams began quietly, tentatively rapping his hands against the sides of the resonant box on which he sat, before surrendering to more formal, frenzied rhythmic patterns. His fierce performance clearly suggested his character’s helplessness and anger; it was frightening. The opera concludes with Leon’s awareness that he is, in fact, mentally ill, and the final quiet notes played by the pianist underscored his resignation.


Heather Buck, Craig Phillips, Christopher Dylan Herbert, Geoffrey Williams, and Steven Caldicott Wilson in Theotokia.
Photo by Joel Simon.

I couldn’t help but compare Theotokia to Pierrot Lunaire, since both works feature characters haunted by the machinations of their own minds. The tender sympathy I felt for Leon was mixed with a measure of distrust, a conflict of sentiments that I typically reserve for the dithering Pierrot. Perhaps aware that viewers might grow skeptical of a mentally unstable protagonist, Berger, like Schoenberg, calls upon the instrumentalists to hold the listeners in the psycho-musical realm. The instrumental writing fascinates at just the right moments, supporting what is otherwise a delicate psychological experience. I somehow didn’t mind when Buck’s Yeti Mother sang passionately about dung, so long as the piano conjured a smoky Berlin cabaret behind her. Steven Schick’s wild percussion solo transformed Leon’s earlier lament into what sounded like a masterfully improvised cadenza. And I held my breath as the violin (and then the clarinet) matched the pitch and dynamic of a fading vocal line, extending a thread of sound beyond what seemed acoustically possible.

Berger, who is a professor at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), surprised me with the subtlety of his electroacoustic soundscape. I’d anticipated a fully transformative ambisonic environment, but the materials used (bells, low-frequency metallic drones) were, for the most part, mere extensions of the instrumental parts. The refined blend between the acoustic instruments (particularly the percussion) and the electronic soundscape suggested that hallucinatory voices could present themselves as, simply, a distortion of what is already familiar.

Jonathan Berger

Berger is a professor of music at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics (CCRMA), where his research emphasizes relationships between music, science, and technology.
Photo by Nicholas Jensen.

In contrast to Theotokia’s candlelit Shaker simplicity and pale costumes, The War Reporter began with stark video projections and panning audio, and felt altogether more edgy and sinister. The men wore black suits. And sunglasses. The opera takes a direct narrative approach: from the opening line, “Have you seen the American soldier?” we bear witness to one man’s actions, as well the consequences of those actions both on his status as a photographer and on his psyche as someone racked with guilt. Finally, we recognize his attempts to make some peace with the demons in his mind.

Also commissioned by Stanford Live, The War Reporter tells the true story of Paul Watson, a photojournalist haunted by the voice of an American soldier he photographed while on assignment in Somalia. Baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert owned the role of Watson, singing in beautiful defiance of the capacity of a single human breath. Herbert sang through ends of phrases with seemingly infinite decrescendos, setting the listener adrift in the fog of his character’s mind. When a single instrument continues this thread of sound, it feels—as in Theotokia—as if time stands still. With curvy irregularities from floor to ceiling, the acoustics of Bing Hall may have assisted in drawing attention to these moments of close relationship between the vocal and instrumental parts. Yet I suspect the magic had more to do with Berger’s writing and Herbert’s performance than with the undulating panels of beech and cedar.

Chris Herbert and Heather Buck

Christopher Dylan Herbert as photojournalist Paul Watson, and Heather Buck as his psychiatrist, in The War Reporter.
Photo by Joel Simon.

The premiere of the two operas was held in conjunction with Stanford’s “Music and Brain” symposium. Now in its seventh year, and held at CCRMA, the conference featured experts in the fields of psychology, music, and communications. Diana Deutsch, a professor of psychology at UC San Diego, was the first speaker on Saturday morning’s program, and her presentation included a definition of musical hallucinations in startling counterpoint to Berger’s operas. According to Deutsch, hallucinated music is virtually impossible to recall or imagine voluntarily because it generally consists of superimposed musical styles, cracked or distorted instruments, or “impossible” techniques, such as a person singing longer than a breath could allow.  Her description of these phenomena reminded me of Herbert’s performance as Paul Watson and of how his approach to the vocal line, in combination with Berger’s sleight-of-hand orchestration, effectively placed us in the faltering expanse of Watson’s mind.
One only needs to lunch with a member of the CCRMA faculty to get the sense that, at Stanford, music is never enough. It is always “music and —.” Music and anthropology. Music and psychology. Music and acoustic modeling. This view of music through the lens of the hard sciences sometimes strikes me as fantastic, but perhaps such interdisciplinary relationships are no more strange than those forged between music, art, and literature. Between the premiere of Berger’s operas, the symposium, and trekking from one end of the Stanford campus to the other, I was reminded that the juxtaposition of art and science, idea and exploration, yields results that are often as intriguing as they are unexpected.

Soli Plays ‘Til the End of Time

Premiere of Steven Mackey's Prelude to the End

Premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End – Photo courtesy Jason Murgo

Austin’s central location puts me within just a few hours’ drive of most of the large Texas cities. Last fall I pointed my car east to check out Houston’s Musiqa, and so this spring I decided to head south to San Antonio. Known for the Riverwalk, the trail of Spanish missions, and the Alamo (though after more than a decade in Austin, it’s hard for me to think of anything but this when I think “Alamo”), San Antonio also has a vibrant musical community, and the chamber ensemble Soli is among the strongest proponents of new music in the region. Formed in 1994, Soli has commissioned 17 works in as many years, including the May 8 world premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End.

The McNay Art Museum was the setting for their final concert of the season. I arrived a bit early, and it looked as though it might turn out to be one of those old-school new music concerts where there are more people on stage than in the seats; a real bummer given the Mackey world premiere that was forthcoming. The handful of people who were there twenty minutes before curtain were dwarfed by the 100+ chairs, and as the 7:00 p.m. start arrived, Soli was joined on stage by Mackey, video director Mark DeChiazza, and dancer Kristin Clotfelter. However, as the casual pre-concert discussion led by pianist Carolyn True progressed, the rest of the audience came in by and by, eventually all but filling the room.

The concert began with la scène miniature quartet by Richard Carrick. I’ve never really tuned in to microtonality, so its mention in the program notes made me a bit wary, but Carrick’s spare use here was effective without descending into the sometimes painful, quasi-out-of-tune world which often develops. The microtonal lines in the violin played well against the piano, long loping phrases giving way to breathy bass clarinet and seagull harmonics in the cello, the latter sounding quite organic and natural in the texture and not like the special effect it typically is. These lines moved seamlessly between the bass clarinet and cello, which were rejoined shortly by a more consonant dance in the violin and piano, the former eventually returning to microtones. Finally, they were all together, syncopated germs bouncing about as a Bela Lugosi moment by way of Bartók showed up at the end of the work, tremolo and all, with big eyebrows in the piano.

An oldie but goodie, Stephen Hartke’s trio for piano, clarinet, and violin The Horse with The Lavender Eye (1997) followed the Carrick. Featuring left hand alone for all performers initially, piano rumbles, angular clarinet lines, and insectile pizz. arpeggios populate the first movement, the extreme quiet of the violin drawing the listener in as the piece shuffles forth. “The Servant Of Two Masters” was a fitting title, as listening to the movement almost seems like flipping back and forth between two television programs. True divided her time between Stephanie Key’s piercing clarinet part and Ertan Torgul’s contrasting gossamer violin lines. The peaceful wandering lines of “Cancel My Rumba Lesson” which followed contrasted with both the earlier manic material and the title itself. The communication on stage was tight and particularly notable during the fits and starts of the second movement.

The McNay was doing a big Warhol show, so Paul Moravec’s Andy Warhol Sez, originally for piano and bassoon, arranged here by Key for bass clarinet, seemed a particularly appropriate choice. Consisting of seven miniatures (some a bit bigger than others), the piece explored a variety of moods and textures and was quite attractive and approachable. The Moravec was followed by an arrangement of “Kashmir” performed by cellist David Mollenauer. [1] I would have to think at least twice before deciding not to do an impression of Robert Plant in a truly seminal Zeppelin track, but I have to say that Mollenauer pulled it off with aplomb. The arrangement was originally for cello ensemble, but Mollenauer recorded several backing tracks which he played along with live, complete with the occasional percussive thwack. The entire evening was quite well received, but the applause volume peaked at the end of this piece. It occurred to me afterward that there were likely a number of people in the audience who were not familiar with the source material and simply enjoyed the tune and the vitality of the performance. While I also enjoyed it, I did find myself wishing that I could hear this piece without the baggage of an entire high school life spent playing rock guitar. [2]

Speaking of misspent youth as it relates to guitars, the second half featured the premiere of Steven Mackey’s Prelude to the End. Commissioned by Soli and featuring video by Mark DeChiazza of a performance by dancer Kristin Clotfelter, Prelude to the End was written not exactly as a response to Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, but with the knowledge that any piece written for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano might be programmed along with the Quartet, or at least seen in light of it. No pressure. Initially populated with bright declamatory gestures among the ensemble, high moto perpetuo piano lines developed which were underscored by jagged phrases in the cello and bass clarinet. These phrases are picked up on by the violin, leading to an overall darker section. A brief return to the opening material acted as a bridge to new and highly syncopated lines, heavy chordal riffs in the piano accompanied by high, dramatic violin parts. This eventually spins itself out leading to somber, slower, and more reflective material which lasted through the end of the work.

SOLI with guest artists Kristin Clotfelter, Steve Mackey, and Mark DeChiazza.

SOLI with guest artists Kristin Clotfelter, Steve Mackey, and Mark DeChiazza.
Photo courtesy Jason Murgo

The concert was followed by a reception as casual as the opening of the show. Soli and their guest artists spent the better part of the next hour chatting with the audience in the lobby, and I found myself in a conversation with a recently retired art teacher who had just moved back to Texas after several decades teaching in New York. She and I briefly discussed the finer points of the evening’s music, but much of our discussion was about the concert experience itself. She was happily surprised at the broad demographic of the audience, the relaxed atmosphere, and the warmth and connectivity of the musicians both on and off the stage. She said it reminded her of shows she’d seen back east, but was not necessarily what she’d expected upon her return. I said that I thought the show was representative of my concert-going experience in the area, and that if she enjoyed this one, there were likely many more in store for her. She seemed heartened by that, and as she made her way over to mingle with the artists, I headed out to my car, the riff from “Kashmir” my accompaniment on the way home.


1. It occurs to me that I might need to mention that this piece is by Led Zeppelin, though I hope that goes without saying.

2. Including “Kashmir.” Lots of “Kashmir.”