A New Testament

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene in the Opera House

No Gospel was written as history. But every gospel––whether included in the Bible or not––contains fragments of the history of Jesus of Nazareth and of those who followed him. In 2007, I wondered: could one develop, from those first- and second-century fragments, a credibly human original version of the story that we know only from its later and fantastical elaborations: elaborations glamorized by miracle and hardened by dogma? In such a new New Testament, might its women characters speak as eloquently as its men? And might such a version gain, rather than lose, nobility, passion, detail, nerve, if its characters struggled through their lives in bodies as swayed by desire as our own; if they were guided only by half-remembered tradition, moral intuition, and the light they had to see by?

My answer, in 2013, is this opera. Drawing on the Gnostic gospels, the canonical gospels, and nearly a century of scholarship, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene reimagines the story of Jesus through the eyes of its most substantial female character. At first, this Mary Magdalene, like so many moderns, searches for meaning and purpose in erotic love alone. But her entanglement with Jesus of Nazareth—as mentor, soulmate, and as co-minister—teaches her to distinguish love from possession, even as it teaches him to see the moral dignity of women. I use Mary’s clashes with Jesus’s disciple Peter (minutely described in the Nag Hammadi scriptures discovered in 1948) to suggest how the personal politics within Jesus’ movement may have played out in their own place and time. And this opera offers a Gnostic version of Mary’s vision at Jesus’s tomb which—had it shaped the Christian story the way Peter’s version of it did— might have left us a radically, radiantly different Western world.

The most startling premises of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene either hide in plain sight in the canonical gospels or enjoy widespread consensus among Biblical scholars. No evidence—none—indicates the Magdalene was a prostitute.  But clues in Matthew, Mark, and Luke strongly hint that Jesus was seen as an illegitimate child.  Theologians from John Dominic Crossan through Karen L. King shrug to agree that Jesus and Mary Magdalene may well have been sexually involved—see the Gospel of Philip’s description of Mary as Jesus’ “companion,” its accounts of his constantly “kissing her on the mouth.” Peter’s resistance to women burns bright in Pistis Sophia and Dialogue of the Savior (in which Mary admits “I am afraid of Peter, for he hates me and all of my sex:”) and Peter’s intent to banish Mary—as well as Jesus’ mollifying counteroffer to “make (Mary Magdalene) male—” comprise the stark final verses of the Gospel of Thomas.

Scholarship, though, is not drama. I tried not just to understand this history, but to forge from it real conflict among vital characters, in speech that honored both its ancient sources and its modern listeners.  And—having never been persuaded of the superiority of the prose libretto over the compactness, elegance, and musicality of dramatic verse—I followed the example of writers from Busenello through Wagner to Sondheim in imbuing that speech with the symmetry of rhyme and the shapeliness of strophe.  But that speech took its deepest colors, its clearest contours, from the music I’d started to hear from the moment I reread the resurrection scene recounted by The Gospel of John.

The critic and composer Virgil Thomson, trying to make sense of the various musics composers were creating seventy years ago, proposed that any choice could be welcomed as long as it were enough so.  That is, simple music should be truly simple: complex music, truly complex.  In no other score of mine have I taken that advice so much to heart as in The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.  As in my first two operas, Little Women and Lysistrata, I still shape musical narrative through the audible transformation of recurrent vocal melody: in this piece, themes supporting the language of losing and finding oneself, of knowing and telling, of forsaking and being forsaken, and of being “part of a design,” bring us, I hope, as close to the core of the drama as the words do. And in this opera, too, the music’s soul is the vocal line—focused and refracted, but never dominated, by the orchestra that upholds it—while the silence against which that line is sung is never far from my mind’s ear. (Were I a painter, I would use acres of white space.) But never has my simple music been simpler, nor my dense music been denser, than in this score. In The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a confession murmurs over only a pair of quiet woodwinds, then thickens into an anguished, grinding orchestral polychord.  A postlude for mezzo-soprano and baritone unfurls against a string texture so diaphanous, and made so ambiguous by disjunct harp and piano figures, that it seems less a harmony than a timbre.  Then—four scenes later—the chorus stacks up the tones of its savage incantations into clusters of granitic solidity.  I believe the drama demanded this textural range.  I thought the surging, restless sounds over which Mary Magdalene first sings of the blessedness of erotic love needed to feel drastically different from the hovering sonorities—burgeoning from a single tone—that illuminate the anointment monologue she sings much later in the score.  But I spun both textures from comparable triads.  Similarly, the two sermon scenes––one baleful, one open-hearted––obviously needed distinct harmonic colors. But both required an immediacy of melodic address, that––precisely because it implied preaching to a multitude–couldn’t be further removed from the oblique dissonances, in dry, offbeat accents, with which one character, in private council, excoriates another for betraying a cause in which they both believe.

Any composer is delighted and humbled when artists commit to his or her vision. But I am particularly thankful for San Francisco Opera’s commitment to this piece, because I think opera— poised between reason and ritual; drawing as much from the particularity of language as from a realm of expression to which words are needless—is the only genre of live or recorded art that could bring this subject completely to life.  My list of people to thank is long, including—besides the tireless and talented administrators of the company itself, and the sovereign artists who have created this production and performance— Joan Acocella, Mark Campbell, John Corigliano, Carlisle Floyd, Rebecca Lyman, Diane Paulus, Jane Shaw, and Francesca Zambello. But first on this roster is David Gockley, whose commitment to American opera has been both unwavering and exemplary; and to whom, with infinite gratitude, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is dedicated.