Since announcing the world première of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene for the Spring/Summer of 2013, many subscribers have asked me why we chose to do an opera on this subject. My response is that this is one of the world’s great stories in a new and exciting version, written and performed by some of the most extraordinary artists in opera today. Some, though, have expressed bewilderment. “Mary Magdalene, sure: but a Gospel of Mary? My Bible includes only the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John! How can this be an opera?”
But there is a Gospel of Mary: and this opera is based not only on that text, but also on other versions of the New Testament story that only came to light seventy-five years ago. In 1948, in the Egyptian desert, archaeologists discovered a treasure trove of these alternate versions: the Gospels of Mary, of Thomas, and of Philip; the Dialogue of the Savior; Pistis Sophia (Faith-Wisdom, in the Greek) to name a few. All these versions—while echoing the sayings and character of Jesus as described in the traditional Gospels—shed brilliant new light on Jesus, his teachings, and his relationships: especially his relationship with a woman known as Mary from the Galilean city of Magdala, known more commonly as Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene appears in every traditional Gospel, but never as the center of a story, and never in the same way each time. Mark describes her as a woman from whom Jesus drove out seven demons; Luke lists her as one of several women who gave to Jesus and his followers out of her “resources.” (Money? Food and shelter? The text isn’t specific.) But all four Evangelists find the Magdalene (along with Jesus’s mother Mary) keeping vigil at the cross on which Jesus dies, and then at the tomb in which he reappears to her: though only John’s Gospel has her seeing the risen Christ herself. (The others claim she learns the news from angels.) [Right: David Gockley with Composer Mark Adamo. Photo by Kristen Loken.]
No Gospel, though—not one—claims she was a prostitute. She came to be remembered as one because one sixth-century Pope, in one influential sermon, combined several female characters—some sensual, some sinning, some both—into one character: and called that character by the Magdalene’s name. All the Gospels agree that Mary Magdalene went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. But Luke 7:11 also mentions another, unnamed female “sinner,” two days before Jesus’s crucifixion, who burst in to a dinner held in Jesus’s honor and, weeping, anointed his feet and dried them with her hair. And the Gospels remember two other Marys (aside from Jesus’s mother:) a reformed prostitute named Mary of Egypt, and Mary of Bethany, sister of Lazarus and Martha. In 594 CE, Pope Gregory declared all these women were one woman: Mary Magdalene. The first woman---the first person—to whom the risen Christ appeared, became (in Roman Catholicism, at least: the Orthodox Church never agreed) a whore!
As such, she was a tremendous success. Countless churches, particularly in France, were erected in her honor. Generations of poets, musicians, and sculptors depicted her; and, over the course of innumerable paintings, she acquired her own iconography: red hair, glamorous gowns, an ointment jar. She became even more extravagantly fictionalized during the Middle Ages: sailing to Provence and ending her days as a kind of female John the Baptist in some tales, marrying Jesus and establishing the French royal family in another. (There’s no Scriptural support for either of these tales: but that didn’t stop Dan Brown from using them as a colorful backdrop for his thriller The Da Vinci Code.) Mary, the Mother of Jesus, virginal and untroubled, remained what women were supposed to be. But the emotionally and erotically alive Magdalene—human, flawed, but ultimately redeemed—was closer to what women—to what people—actually were and…and are.
But then these Gnostic texts, which had been forgotten—or suppressed?—for nearly two millennia came to light: and they describe a very different Magdalene. This Mary is not only a member of Jesus’s inner circle of followers, but one Jesus describes as “the blessed one…she whose heart is more directed to the Kingdom of Heaven than all your brothers.” Was she his spouse? Mary is described with a word that can mean either his “companion” or “consort,” and Jesus is described as “constantly kissing her on the mouth.” Many of these texts assert that Peter, the father of the Western Church, resented Mary’s influence on Jesus and vied with her for Jesus’s favor. (See quotes, below.) And the Gospel of Mary concludes with a breathtaking account of how Mary, after seeing Jesus in the tomb, returns to the terrified disciples and encourages them to take heart and preach the gospel far and wide.
So: neither a virgin nor a whore, but a human woman—alive both erotically and spiritually—who may have been as (or more!) important than any of the male disciples in founding, at Jesus’ side, a movement that affects so many of us today. How can this not be an opera? Of course it’s a fascinating historical project: taking a story we thought we knew and daring us to wonder if it might have happened differently, before the institutional Christianity of long ago decided on an official version. But it’s also a richly dramatic project. Read these texts for story, not just doctrine, and there are unmissable hints of intense and fascinating conflicts among Mary, Peter, Jesus, even his mother Mary; and ambivalence about women not just from Peter, but within Jesus himself. The drama, in becoming more human, gains, not loses, richness. And, fortunately, we have the composer-librettist who can bring this to life. Mark Adamo was fired by this subject five years ago, and the opera he’s created—meticulously researched, vividly scored, touching and true—will be unlike anything you’ve seen or heard before. [Above: Conductor Michael Christie, Director Kevin Newbury and Composer Mark Adamo at a recent workshop for The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Photo by Kristen Loken.]
Pistis Sophia 1:17 (also 24 and 25) Jesus says, “Mary, blessed one, whom I will complete in all the mysteries of the height, speak openly, you are she whose heart is more directed to the Kingdom of Heaven than all your brothers.”
Philip, II. “And the companion of the Savior was Mary Magdalene: he loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on the mouth.”
Dialogue of the Savior, 37: 2-7: “The Lord said, ‘Pray in the place where there is no woman… that is, destroy the works of the female.’ Mary said, ‘They will never be destroyed.’”
Peter, in the Gnostic Pistis Sophia, (Faith Wisdom: hereafter Pistis Sophia) I, 36-27 describes Mary as follows: “My Lord, we are not able to suffer this woman who takes the opportunity from us, and does not allow any one of us to speak, but she speaks many times!”)
Thomas, v. 113-114: “Simon Peter said to them, ‘Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.’” Jesus said, ‘Look, I will guide her to make her male, so that she too may become a living sprit resembling you males.’”
Pistis Sophia, p. 29: “Mary said to the Savior, ‘I am afraid of Peter, for he threatens me and hates all my sex.’”
“The disciples were distressed and wept greatly. ‘How are we going to go out to the rest of the world to preach the good news?... If they didn’t spare him, how will they spare us?’ Then Mary stood up… and addressed her brothers. ‘Do not weep or grieve or be in doubt: for his grace will be with you all, and grace will shelter you. He has joined us together, and [has] made us true human beings. Go, and preach the good news.’ And Peter said, ‘Has he spoken secretly to a woman and not openly… [to us]? Surely he did not mean that she is more worthy than we?’ Mary said, ‘Peter, my brother, do you think that I’ve made all this up…? … Or that I am telling lies…? [And] Levi said [to Peter,] ‘Peter, you have a constant inclination to anger and you are always ready to give in to it. And even now you are doing exactly that by questioning this woman as if you’re her adversary. If he found her to be worthy, who are you to disregard her? For he knew her completely and loved her devotedly. [Instead,] we should do as were commanded… and not be laying down [any] rules or making laws’… After he said these things, Levi left and began to preach the good news.”