Backstage at San Francisco Opera > July 2013 > From the Rehearsal Files: The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
From the Rehearsal Files: The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

"Okay, let's run it again from the same place," says our director Kevin Newbury. "Strong and wrong."

I've come to love that phrase. In rehearsals we have to give ourselves over to our impulses in the moment, to try different moods and reactions before we choose the best one. "The best idea wins," Kevin told us on the first day of rehearsals. Everyone is encouraged to contribute if they have an idea for the tone of a scene or a piece of stage business. But in order for an interesting dramatic moment to emerge, we have to be willing to take a chance that it might fail—"wrong"—and commit to it anyway—"strong." It frees us from the interference of our inner critics and editors and allows us to take our reactions to their most compelling place.

I like "strong and wrong" not just as a philosophy for artistic endeavors, but for life, too. We have to be willing to put ourselves out in the world, to take chances that we might fail, if we're going to accomplish anything of value.

Like this opera. We had been rehearsing the world premiere of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, a work based on the canonical and Gnostic Gospels, which tries to imagine how Mary's story might really have happened, and what her relationship with Jesus actually was. The composer, Mark Adamo, and Kevin tell us that with this production they hope to open up a dialogue, to inspire people seeing this opera to examine their reactions to it and use it as a jumping-off point to discuss their faith, religion, the role of women in religious and social history, and so on.


[Tappan as a Seeker, third from right.]

During a lunch break, I and some of the other Seekers (the modern characters who kick off the search in the opera for who Mary Magdalene was) share a pizza and start discussing how and why people might be uncomfortable by this opera, and how our own religious beliefs color our reactions to it. Some of us confess the slight feeling of unease we felt watching the rehearsal of Jesus and Mary Magdalene's sex scene, and compare it to imagining your parents doing it.

I talk about my Quaker upbringing, the Quaker idea of God being in everything, and learning, as part of my religious education, about the beliefs of all religions. For me, this opera with its questioning spirit, its blending of past and present, its imagining of the reality that sparked the stories that birthed Christianity, feels like a homecoming. I like the idea of Jesus as a real, flawed person. It adds value to the things he did and suffered, and gives me hope that we ordinary humans have the potential to be just as amazing a force for good. And I learned why other Christians might disagree with that portrayal of him. It's difficult, but liberating, to talk about something so personal and important, and I feel exhilarated by the discussion.


[As Girl, right.]

The show hasn't even opened at this point, and already it's inspiring us to share our beliefs.

After the third show, I go down to the cafe below the lobby and listen to Kayleen Asbo answering questions from the audience about the Bible references in the opera and the myths of Mary Magdalene through the ages. I learn things I never knew about the Nag Hammadi library documents discovered in 1945, how they were preserved, what they tell us about the people who wrote them, and how they reflect on the gospels in the Bible. She talks about the many different Marys mentioned in the Bible and how religious history and tradition changed and combined them. The history of Mary Magdalene comes alive like an amazing detective story, where we can never know the truth, but in which the speculation and possibilities are absolutely fascinating. Kayleen is passionate and articulate and fearless, and the audience is fascinated and engaged.


[As Girl, far right.]

This is the thing of value we have accomplished. We not only tell this story, but  those who saw it open up and examine what they saw, felt, and believe, and share it with each other, take it out of the theater, engage with it and learn from it. It's a sensitive subject and a risk, but taking part in this dialogue, onstage and off, has been a shared learning experience unlike any opera I've ever been a part of.

Strong and wrong. Absolutely.

Production photos by Cory Weaver.

Posted: 7/8/2013 12:32:56 PM by Stacey Tappan (Seeker and Girl, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene)
Filed under: 2012-13Season, TheGospelOfMaryMagdalene


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