Gospel Harmonies



The Gospel of Mary Magdalene opened at San Francisco Opera Wednesday night: wizardly Michael Christie led a sovereign cast, an immaculate chorus, and a protean orchestra through my score, and the singers–led by Sasha Cooke, Nathan Gunn, William Burden, and Maria Kanyova–made every word tell under the dramatically sensitive and pictorially elegant direction of Kevin Newbury. On David Korins’ archaeological installation of a set, iridescently lit by Christopher Maravich, the cast and chorus appeared and disappeared as if by magic: and Constance Hoffman’s costumes, ancient or modern as needed, told a clear and moving story. Of course, the piece is still growing in performance: we are still seeking the ideal balance of contemplation and momentum in the first act, by far the more intricate of the two; but any composer would have been awed and humbled by the artistry lavished on this premiėre.

To the surprise of exactly no one with an interest in the topic and a broadband connection, the reviews have been mixed. Among the generous notices, I was most grateful for Joshua Kosman’s in the San Francisco Chronicle; his description most closely matches the piece I tried to make. Pamela Feinsilber for The Huffington Post,  Chloe Velter for Arts Journal, Jeffrey S. McMillan for Bachtrack, and Beth Spotswood for CBS were comparably supportive; writers such as Stephen Smoliar and William Burnett, each writing multiple features, went into extraordinary depth.  The dissenters, Tolstoyesque, each dissented in their own way; the libretto was muddled or overcomplex, unless it was simple and straightforward as a Broadway musical (which made it dumbed-down, notwithstanding the extensive research, which was itself problematic;) the music was bland, unless it was astringent; melodic but slight, or dense but unmelodic; and so on. (Everybody liked the orchestration.)

Some of this is easy to dismiss. An école-de-Limbaugh rant lost me after its first reference to Sandra Fluke. The less-is-more approach I take in my music will never be appreciated by a writer who uses the word “fitful” as praise.  As I had criticized, online, the work of artists whom one New York writer had passionately advocated–a substantial breach of collegiality which I subsequently withdrew, and for which I later apologized to the artists involved, but who can unring a bell?—I was disappointed, but hardly surprised, when his notice did not so much engage the new opera (he’d admired the previous two) as wave it away.  I was surprised by how many of the unpersuaded used the footnotes of the libretto as a lorgnette through which to squint at the entire enterprise: as if documenting the sources of a narrative of the illegitimacy and sexuality of Jesus, and of misogyny in the early Church, was not the appropriate substantiation of a multi-million-dollar project, but mere vanity on the author’s part.

Well: as problems go, &c.  “My third opera has been given its première in a nonpareil production by the most adventurous and distinguished large opera company in the United States: and it’s gotten mixed reviews!  Call FEMA!” The second performance was more beautiful and urgent than the first, which was already at a very high level: our third is tomorrow night.  What these artists continue to give to, and through, this piece and this company is a gift I will never forget.

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