Colorado University Boulder Retools Mark Adamo's 'Gospel of Mary Magdalene'
It was also in 2013 when "Mary Magdalene" received its high-profile world premiere at the San Francisco Opera, conducted by Michael Christie (who was then in his last year as music director of Boulder's Colorado Music Festival). As Adamo expected, the critical response was mixed, and despite the sterling performances of his cast and creative team, he says that he knew he wanted to revisit the score.
The CU Eklund Opera Program's summer new opera workshop, known as CU NOW, offered Adamo an ideal chance to re-imagine the opera. Normally, CU NOW workshops pieces that have been commissioned or are in progress, well before their professional premieres. The works are often unfinished and typically presented partially.
Thus, the presentation of a complete opera — one that has already had a high-profile world premiere — in a new version was exciting new ground for the highly regarded summer program. The workshop version of "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" was presented in two performances at the Imig Music Theater June 16 and 18. The production was free and open to the public. Adamo himself served as stage director.
Adamo said that the major changes to the piece are not in the libretto — which he wrote based on extensive research involving the canonical New Testament gospels, as well as the gnostic gospels and other sources. Rather, the size of the ensemble and the nature of the staging are the focus.
The libretto — which re-imagines the New Testament story through the eyes of its principal female characters — retains its controversial aspects. Adamo had no interest in diminishing those, although "part of me was always apprehensive about taking one of the foundational myths of western culture and turning it upside down," Adamo said. Everything in the libretto, including its most explosive aspects, is rooted in his study of the sources. This includes the exploration of the romantic life and sexuality of Jesus and Mary Magdalene (Jesus is called "Yeshua" in the libretto), alternative explanations for the origin of the virgin birth narrative, and even the idea that Mary the mother of Jesus (called "Miriam" in the score) might have considered an abortion. But Adamo said the female-centric narrative actually proved just as controversial.
Adamo said that when he and program director Leigh Holman arranged for the workshop, Holman assured him of the Boulder community's open-mindedness.
The San Francisco production included a large chorus wearing modern dress (and representing modern-day "seekers") along with the biblical characters in traditional dress.
"The chorus was a character, and I was asking for too much acting from such a large group," Adamo said. "And the biblical costume plot became so central that it rendered the characters in the chorus more peripheral than I wanted them to be."
He said that the point was always less about what the biblical characters were doing than how they were perceived.
He has reduced the full cast from 73 to 16, and the large chorus is pared down to 12. Adamo said the original conception for the massive San Francisco stage would mean that only the largest companies would ever be able to present it. "I can already see that the reduced ensemble will be much nimbler and make so many things more dramatically possible."
As for the actual musical substance of the score, not much has changed, but the pace is different.
"It really was much slower and sluggish than it needed to be," Adamo said. "The story does have elements of comedy and lightness."
The workshop performance was presented with accompaniment from two keyboards, percussion and harp. Adamo said he will likely revisit his original orchestration based on the experience at CU, but one thing he is known for is making a relatively small instrumental ensemble seem larger than it is.
Joining Adamo in the creative team were guest conductor Andrew Bisantz, music director Jeremy Reger, and assistant director Michael Aniolek. Adamo had high praise for CU's team, noting that they put together the 90-minute first act in two days. The cast included distinguished CU Opera alumni Sarah Barber, mezzo-soprano and Wei Wu, bass.
The opera is personal for Adamo and reflects his own journey and spiritual history, with the central question being the role of sexuality in a life that is meant to be virtuous.
"My mother was divorced, which meant she could not take communion in the Catholic Church," he said. Later, Adamo realized he was gay. "The story is an attempt to reconstruct the New Testament and imbue it with the story of my own life."