The Gospel of Mary Magdalene


Libretto by the composer

"No Gospel was written as history. But every gospel—not only those included in the New Testament—contains fragments of the history of Jesus of Nazareth and of those who followed him. In 2007 I wondered: could you develop from those fragments a credibly human original version of the story that we know only through its later, magical embellishments? In such a new New Testament, might its women characters speak as eloquently as its men? (The Gnostic Gospels suggest as much.) And might such a story gain, rather than lose, nobility, breadth, passion, nerve, if—instead of the usual saints, angels, and sinners—it centered on human beings making momentous decisions guided only by painful experience, moral intuition, and the light they have to see by? The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is my answer."

—Mark Adamo, composer

Commemorative special edition posters by Michael Schwab are available at the San Francisco Opera Shop.


She has long been condemned as a harlot, or dismissed as a minor player in a well-known sacred narrative, but ancient manuscripts discovered in recent decades tell a very different story, giving us a striking new viewpoint on Jesus' message to humanity. Mary Magdalene is placed at the center of the story in this world premiere by Mark Adamo, a "brilliant theater composer" (The New Yorker) whose Little Women is the most frequently performed new opera of the past 20 years. Kevin Newbury, lauded for his "imagination and emotional nuance" (The New York Times), directs a resplendent cast that includes Sasha Cooke, William Burden and Maria Kanyova. Nathan Gunn, who possesses "a voice of stunning authority" (The New York Times), sings the role of Yeshua. Michael Christie, in his San Francisco Opera debut, conducts.

Sung in English with English supertitles
Approximate running time: 2 hours, 50 minutes including one intermission

San Francisco Opera production
Commissioned by San Francisco Opera

Production photos by Cory Weaver

Audio excerpts are from three works by Mark Adamo:
Little Women; Houston Grand Opera Orchestra conducted by Patrick Summers, March 2001.
Lysistrata; Houston Grand Opera Orchestra conducted by Stefan Lano, March 2005.
“Mik’hail” from the fourth and final movement of Four Angels: Concerto for Harp and Orchestra; National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leonard Slatkin, June 2006.


Mary Magdalene Sasha Cooke *
Miriam Maria Kanyova
Peter William Burden
Yeshua Nathan Gunn
Tamar, Seeker, Girl, Newscaster Marina Harris
Seeker, Girl Stacey Tappan
Seeker, Girl, Newscaster Erin Johnson
Policeman Daniel Curran *
Follower, Seeker, Preacher, Newscaster A.J. Glueckert *
Follower, Seeker, Newscaster Marco Stefani *
Policeman Brian Leerhuber
Simon, Follower, Onlooker, Newscaster Hadleigh Adams
Follower, Seeker, Fishmonger Joseph Barron *
Pharisee, Newscaster James Creswell
Newscaster Philippe Sly

Production Credits

Composer and Librettist Mark Adamo *
Conductor Michael Christie *
Director Kevin Newbury *
Set Designer David Korins *
Costume Designer Constance Hoffman
Lighting Designer Christopher Maravich
Chorus Director Ian Robertson

* San Francisco Opera Debut


In an archaeological dig in the Holy Land, modern believers voice their deep questioning about the faults they find in traditional biblical history. Their anguish summons a chorus, who promises to correct and complete their story. New discoveries of ancient texts call their attention to the figure of Mary Magdalene, who appears.

Mary enters her dwelling in Capernaum. She seeks spiritual transcendence through physical passion, but her latest lover, Simon, leaves her as his vengeful wife threatens to have her punished. The preacher Yeshua appears and rescues her. She asks how she can repay him, and he tells her to find him at the synagogue at Capernaum.
The next day, at the synagogue, Mary finds Yeshua preaching. His lecture fails to interest her until its end, when he utters a brief message reminding Mary of what she had been seeking. A Pharisee insults Yeshua, and Yeshua’s mother Miriam appears and tries to diffuse the situation. Yeshua denies her and flees. Miriam warns Mary her away from her son, but Mary decides to join Yeshua’s group.

Peter, Yeshua’s principal disciple, tries to exclude Mary but Yeshua overrules him. Over time, Mary earns the welcome of Yeshua’s fractious group. Roman policemen report of the murder of a dissident, John the Baptist. Yeshua, anguished at the death of his friend and mentor, is consoled by Mary. The next morning, Mary finds Yeshua withdrawn, and prepares to leave, but he asks her to stay.

On the night of her wedding to Yeshua, Mary defies tradition and impulsively goes to Yeshua’s quarters to see him, trailed by Miriam. She overhears Yeshua’s strange attempt to placate Peter’s continued objections about her. Mary wants to burst in but Miriam drags her away, claiming Yeshua’s behavior is her (Miriam’s) fault. When Mary demands to know why Miriam consistently takes the blame for her son, Miriam, distraught, reveals her painful secret, and Mary comforts her. Mary excoriates Yeshua for his treatment of both Miriam and herself, demanding Yeshua chooses between herself and Peter. He makes his choice.


Months later, Yeshua is teaching a group of people on a hillside, accompanied by Mary and Miriam. The energized crowd claims Yeshua as their political Messiah. After police break up the rally, Peter urges Yeshua to accept the people’s will for decisive political action, while Mary argues against him. Alone, Yeshua decides. He and his disciples are preparing themselves to take a political stand when Mary appears. She struggles to prepare herself for the thought of losing him.

Taken prisoner for his rebellion, Yeshua is crucified. Peter, confronted by the crowd, denies knowing him. Peter agonizes over his guilt, and Mary consoles him and offers to make peace between them.

Miriam joins Mary, and the women set out for Yeshua’s tomb to anoint his body. Mary asks Miriam what she would tell her son if she could, and Miriam says a final farewell. Mary descends into the crypt and has an extraordinary vision.

A New Testament

Mary Adamo

Mark Adamo on his third opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

Download a PDF of the article here

Photo by Martin Gram for OperaNews

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 1945) 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.

Elsewhere in the program book, Kayleen Asbo’s essay describes in pellucid detail the sources I studied and the play they inspired: how 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. To her masterful exposition I would only add that—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.

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An Opera about Mary Magdalene

David Gockley

Since announcing the world premiere 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!”

Detail from Mary Magdalene in Penitence (c. 1560) by Titian (Tiziano Vecellio c. 1488-1576)

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 1945, 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. No Gospel, though claims she was a prostitute. She came to be remembered as one because a 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… 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. 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. 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 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.

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The Journey to Be Fully Human

Kayleen Asbo

Few figures in history have caused as much controversy, confusion, and passionate devotion as Mary Magdalene.

Download a PDF of the article here
Nathan Gunn as Yeshua and Sasha Cooke as Mary Magdalene
photo by J. Henry Fair

Though she appears in only a mere dozen references in the New Testament, Mary Magdalene holds a larger and more pivotal role than any other woman—including the Virgin Mary. The Canonical Gospels of the Bible (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) are remarkably consistent in depicting her as simply the faithful follower of Christ and the primary witness to both the crucifixion and the Resurrection, but the portrayals of Mary Magdalene that have emerged since the New Testament was penned between 50–100 AD have strayed far from that singular vision. The images that have been constructed in her name over the centuries run an extraordinary gamut: from virgin princess to weeping whore, flagellating ascetic to emotional hysteric, charismatic celibate preacher to pulchritudinous prostitute. In each era, she has carried what Carl Jung would call the shadow of the culture, particularly in her artistic portrayals. She has represented sexuality in an era when the body was taboo, emotion during the Age of Reason, and mysticism during an age besotted with rational science. In our own time, Mary Magdalene has been re-envisioned and embraced as a mother, a wife, an initiator of Christ into Egyptian Goddess mysteries, and a Tantric priestess. Is there another woman in all of literature and art who has embodied so much passion—and so much paradox?

While there were literally hundreds of accounts of the teaching and life of Jesus of Nazareth in the first few centuries, enormous debates raged over which versions of the Jesus story were considered legitimate by the orthodox church. After Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in the fourth century, a series of councils and creeds developed that attempted to unify the astonishing diversity of early Christian beliefs and practices. Eventually only four of the Jesus stories were authorized; the other texts were banned, destroyed, or simply fell out of use.

A fragment of the Gospel of Mary

Copies of these texts emerged again in Egypt—first, the Gospel of Mary at the end of the nineteenth century and then, in 1945, a collection of over fifty different manuscripts that were given the name “Gnostic Gospels” by early translators and commentators. In several of these accounts, Mary Magdalene emerges as a deeply insightful spiritual leader of Christ’s inner circle—the one who best understands Jesus’s teachings. In these gospels, she is called “the Woman Who Knows All,” the “Embodiment of Wisdom,” and Christ’s koinonos, or companion who “was always with him,” the woman that he loved “more than all the rest.” In the Gospel of Mary, she is the courageous and insightful one that the other disciples turn to as they are beset by fear and lost in grief. “Teach us the things you know, that we do not,” they implore her. What she reveals is a vision she experienced in her mind of Jesus, where she was guided to apprehend the liberation of the soul from the powers of wrath and ignorance. In many of these alternative gospels, there is an intense rivalry between Mary Magdalene and Peter. Biblical scholars such as Harvard professor Karen King, Princeton professor Elaine Pagels, Episcopalian priest Cynthia Bourgeault, and theologian Ann Graham Brock have documented ongoing conflicts over the divergent interpretations of Jesus reputed to originate with Mary and Peter, with communities following Peter favoring a more literal and hierarchical point of view, and those of Mary Magdalene espousing a more egalitarian, poetic, psychological, and symbolic perspective.

However, Mary Magdalene’s portrait in these heretical books is not necessarily in contradiction with the Canonical Gospels. Beyond Luke’s inference that she was a wealthy woman supporting Jesus’ s ministry out of her own means, we have no information of who Mary Magdalene was before she became a faithful follower of Jesus or what she did after the Resurrection. There is no mention anywhere in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John that Mary Magdalene was connected with promiscuity or prostitution: that was an invention that emerged only at the beginning of the Dark Ages in the West, when she became confused with Luke’s unnamed sinful woman and a fourth-century saint, Mary of Egypt, who truly was a reformed prostitute. Instead, what we do have in the Canonical Gospels is is a moment of rare consensus by the writers: Mary Magdalene is the primary witness during Christ’s horrifying execution and mysterious resurrection. She is in fact, the only witness the gospel writers consistently agree was present at the death, as well as at the empty tomb. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John, she is also the first witness to the risen Christ, entrusted with the mandate to spread the good news—hence her traditional honorary title of “Apostle to the Apostles.”

The most fully developed portrayal of Mary Magdalene appears in the Gospel of John. In one of the most tender and intimate scenes in all of literature, she is the devoted disciple who comes alone to prepare Jesus’s body for burial. She finds the tomb empty. Weeping, she turns through her tears to ask the man nearby (whom she mistakes for the gardener) where she can find the body. “Mary,” he says gently—and then she recognizes the voice of the one she has followed and loved. “Rabboni,” she exclaims in astonishment—a word that means “teacher.” It is a scene that has inspired some of the most poignant works by Rembrandt, Fra Angelico, and countless others: her hand reaching out to grasp the man she reveres, and Christ’s gentle caution “Noli me tangere,” a phrase that is most accurately translated from the Latin as “Do not cling to me” and is rendered in Adamo’s opera as “Let me go.”
Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb (1638) by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), oil on panel
Bridgeman Art Library

Early Christian writers saw in Mary Magdalene’s encounter with Christ in the Gospel of John the echoes and fulfillment of the Shulamite woman’s yearning for her King in the Song of Songs—a Biblical poem that culminates in a passionate embrace in a garden amongst the pomegranates and lilies. From the earliest celebrations of Mary Magdalene’s feast day in the Catholic church, this work ascribed to King Solomon has been an integral part of her liturgies. Though intensely erotic, it has been understood by centuries of Christian monastics as a mystical allegory for the soul’s longing for union with the Divine. “Set me as a seal over thy heart, as a seal upon thy arm, for love is as strong as death” cry its culminating verses. The characters and the language of this revered love song—sensual, yearning, hopeful—permeate Mark Adamo’s libretto where love indeed has the last word.

“Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew, recognizing that each person will have a different relationship to him. How can each individual—and each successive generation—make meaning out of the events of 33 AD? Mark Adamo has done an extraordinary amount of historical and Biblical research—attested to by the 116 footnotes in the libretto. Ultimately, however, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is a deeply felt and radically personal imagining of the events and characters that may also speak with profound resonance to our age. The opening prologue, in which a chorus of angst-ridden modern seekers long to reconcile the terrible wounds of Christianity with the undeniable power and beauty of its story may well be a mirror for our modern culture, in which the majority of people in America consider themselves “spiritual but not religious.” Adamo’s Mary Magdalene—passionate, unconventional, intellectually curious, and emotionally courageous—is simultaneously a character rooted in ancient scriptural tradition, both traditional and heretical , and (as Mary Magdalene has always been) a reflection of contemporary desires and hopes.

The first few centuries saw intense debates around the nature of Christ. Was he fully divine or fully human? Or somehow both? For many early Christians, Christ was the figure who revealed our full humanity and called us to embrace it ourselves. In many of the so-called Gnostic texts, particularly the Gospel of Thomas, the word anthropos, meaning “fully human,” is used to describe the highest level of spiritual development where we shine forth in the most complete image of what we were created to be: not cherubim or seraphim, but human. In The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Mark Adamo has given us a set of characters who are complex, nuanced, wounded and striving—each one (including Jesus himself) wrestling with the question of what it means to be fully human.

Some modern Biblical scholars have traced the Greco Roman roots of the concept of a “virgin” to mean simply an unmarried woman, not necessarily someone who has never experienced physical intimacy. Adamo draws on some of the earliest historical sources to infer that Jesus’s mother, here called Miriam, was the victim of an ill-fated affair with a Roman soldier. Taking the concept of a perceived illegitimate birth seriously, the opera develops the psychological tensions between Jesus and his mother, which are hinted at in the Canonical Gospels. In a radical departure from the traditional depiction of a virgin meek and mild, Adamo gives us Jesus’s mother as a strong, powerful and compassionate heroine—very much in alignment with the prophetic call of the Magnificat, Mary’s great speech in the Gospel of Luke. The dialogue and duets between Miriam and Mary Magdalene are Adamo’s own invention, but he sets us imagining: what was the relationship like between these two pivotal women?

Peter’s stubbornness and irascibility is derived from the descriptions from the Gospel of Mary (where Levi says of him, “You have a constant inclination to anger and are always ready to give way to it”) and his anti-female stance attested to in the Gospel of Thomas (where he is reputed to have said, “Let Mary leave us, for women are not worthy of the life”). Yet his character in this opera is also one of deep feeling, a man driven by a quest for a just world.
Members of the creative team for The Gospel of Mary Magdalene include (left to right) costume designer Constance Hoffman, composer-librettist Mark Adamo, director Kevin Newbury, San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, and set designer David Korins.
Photo by Cory Weaver

There is much to challenge and much to ponder in this opera. In the tradition of classical Greece, drama was not intended to be merely entertainment. It was a religious ritual that was supposed to startle, surprise, and move, ultimately bringing a sense of profound catharsis and healing to the audience. The province of great art is not to make us comfortable, but to move us beyond our ordinary and habitual modes of perception to apprehend a bigger, deeper, broader picture of more numinous possibilities. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene will hopefully leave you with many more questions than answers. Questions such as: What is the relationship between spirituality and romantic love? Are the two opposed to one another or can they provide a bridge between worlds? What do we hold fast? How do we let go? Where is the surest connection to the Divine to be found? What is our part in the tapestry of life? How do we find the strength to go on in the face of unbearable loss and grief? These are universal themes that are relevant to any age and any religion. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene cannot answer the question definitively about who Mary Magdalene and Jesus were, or who they might have been to one another; no book or work of art can. The celebrated mythologist Joseph Campbell was once asked about a myth, “Is it true?” He is reputed to have responded, “Of course it is true. And some of it might have even happened.” What this opera invites you to do is to encounter a story you may have thought you knew from a different perspective—and along the way, to find a new and deeper truth in your own heart about what it might mean to become truly human, in the fullest, richest, and most profound sense of the word.
To go deeper into the story behind tonight’s opera, there is a growing treasury of resources to explore, from the Gnostic texts themselves to volumes by Biblical scholars who have dedicated their careers to illuminating the history of Mary Magdalene and early Christianity. A list of resources as well as a series of audiotaped lectures is available at
Kayleen Asbo holds master’s degrees in music, mythology, and psychology, and she is completing her doctoral degree in mythological studies with an emphasis in depth psychology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute. She is a faculty member at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and Sonoma State University, and she lectures for Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes. Asbo has been lauded as a featured lecturer on Mary Magdalene in Italy, England, France, and throughout the Bay Area.

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Mary Magdalene in Art

A look at artwork inspired by the story of Mary Magdalene

Noli Me Tangere (1442) by Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro) (c.1387-1455), fresco
Museo di San Marco dell'Angelico, Florence, Italy / Bridgeman Art Library

Study for the Head of Mary Magdalene by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519), charcoal on paper
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy / Alinari / Bridgeman Art Library

The Repentant Magdalen (c. 1635–40) by Georges de La Tour (1593–1652), oil on canvas
National Gallery, Washington, D.C. / CORBIS

Mary Magdalene (1660–70) by Carlo Dolci (1616–86), oil on canvas
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy / Bridgeman Art Library

A fifteenth-century wall fresco from the Chapelle de St-Erige depicting the assumption of Mary Magdalene; Auron, Tinee Valley, Cote D'Azur, France.
Charles & Josette Lenars / CORBIS

Christ and St. Mary Magdalene at the Tomb (1638) by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn (1606–1669), oil on panel
The Royal Collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II / Bridgeman Art Library

Fragment of an icon of the Crucifixion with Mary Magdalen and the Virgin Mary (1300s), steatite
Cleveland Museum of Art / Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund / Bridgeman Art Library

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"The Time is Now, the Place is First-Century Galilee"

Thomas May

Mark Adamo's exciting new opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, reimagines one of the West's foundational stories

The Penitent Magdalene, 1664 (polychrome wood), by Pedro de Mena (1628-88)
Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid, Spain / Bridgeman Art Library

For composer Mark Adamo, grand opera signifies more than big production values, impressive sets, and musicians crowding the pit. The medium always had a reputation for spectacular entertainment, but Verdi, Wagner, and other pioneers used its grandeur as the Trojan horse through which to smuggle in their deeper inquiries into human nature. That vast potential still beckons to those writing opera for today’s audiences. “As well as an experience of extraordinary amplitude, a grand opera is a metaphor: a 3,000-seat theater sends a message about both what we’ve been and what we still long for as a community,” says Adamo. “So, when creating such an opera, one has to ask: how can you embody something crucial about the way we live now, as opposed to miming familiar ideas of long ago and far away?”

The question turned urgent when San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley invited the composer-librettist to write a large-scale work following the two previous operas—both notable successes—he had commissioned from Adamo during his tenure as general director of Houston Grand Opera. And what could be grander in scale than one of the foundational stories of Western civilization: the emergence of Christianity from the relationships between Jesus and his inner circle?

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, scheduled for its premiere this coming June by San Francisco Opera, posed the toughest artistic challenges Adamo has faced in his career. Five years have elapsed from initial concept to final orchestration (completed just this month). Yet even aside from that enormous investment, Mary Magdalene is as risk-taking a venture as it is audacious. Noting the precedent of ambitious projects like John Adams’s Doctor Atomic, Adamo affirms that opera should “wrestle with large ideas yet, at the same time, present a complete drama in which music and language are deeply intertwined.”

That’s his goal for The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, for which Adamo wrote both music and libretto. The production marks the Company debuts of Adamo as well as of director Kevin Newbury, conductor Michael Christie, and, in the title role, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke: artists returning to San Francisco include baritone Nathan Gunn as Yeshua (Jesus), soprano Maria Kanyova (Miriam, Jesus’ mother), and tenor William Burden (Peter).

Nathan Gunn sings the role of Yeshua and Sasha Cooke sings the title role
in the
2013 world premiere of The gospel of Mary Magdalene.
Photo by J. Henry Fair

Adamo’s previous stage works show an impressive gift for connecting with today’s audiences. His debut, Little Women, which recast the beloved Louisa May Alcott novel as a lyrically touching chamber opera, been given over 75 American and international productions since it premiered at Houston Grand Opera in 1998. The instant success of Little Women led Gockley to commission the highly acclaimed Lysistrata, or The Nude Goddess (2005), based on Aristophanes’ “make-love-not-war” satire and which was celebrated in New York and Washington before its most-recent engagement at Fort Worth Opera in May 2012.

But Adamo, now 50, has put his ability to reinvigorate classic stories with contemporary insights to the ultimate test. The Gospel of Mary Magdalene presents a speculative vision in which alternative narratives of the life and preaching of Jesus—versions that had literally been buried and long forgotten—are integrated into the familiar narrative of the New Testament. Adamo uses these sources to imagine a drama populated by “the living characters behind these ancient personae, the faces behind the masks. Ideally, such a drama could invite us to think deeply about the myths by which we live our lives. By ‘myth,’ I mean, not lie, but those narratives by which we organize our moral imaginations—and which need to be looked at afresh.” The precedent, he continues, is Wagner’s treatment of the Nibelungenlied in the Ring cycle, which wove its many strands of myth into a new narrative “reinterpreted for his time and place.”

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene began in 2007, when Adamo chanced to read a lengthy article by critic Joan Acocella titled “The Saintly Sinner,” (which originally appeared in The New Yorker issue of February 13, 2006). In it Acocella reflected on “the 2,000-year obsession with Mary Magdalene,” the female disciple whom all four official gospels describe as the first witness to the resurrection of Jesus. But her presence in those gospels is otherwise minimal, sketchy, ambiguous. It was only centuries later that she became identified with a prostitute, an earthly antipode to Jesus’ mother, the Virgin Mary— “sometimes a pinup, sometimes a sermon,” as Acocella puts it—until both aspects were integrated into the image of the repentant sinner.

Over the centuries the Magdalene character (her family name is usually associated with Magdala, a coastal town in Galilee) would inspire thousands of artworks and nearly as many churches erected in her honor. But the startling discovery in Egypt in 1945 of other texts describing Jesus and his circle radically challenged the traditional view of her. Often referred to as the “Gnostic Gospels” because of their emphasis on esoteric wisdom (gnosis is the Greek word for knowledge), these were written between the second and fourth centuries C.E., a period teeming with competing early-Christian sects. They were, however, kept out of the official New Testament canon, though the Gospel of John shares some features with the Gnostic accounts.

The creative team for The Gospel of Mary Magdalene includes (L to R)
San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, Composer and Librettist Mark Adamo,
Costume Designer Constance Hoffman, Director Kevin Newbury, and Set Designer David Korins
Photo by Cory Weaver

Acocella’s article surveyed some of the burgeoning scholarly investigations of these discoveries, which include, among others, the Gospels of Thomas and Philip, Faith-Wisdom, and Dialogue of the Savior. They not only helped illuminate The Gospel of Mary—an earlier Gnostic discovery from 1898—but suggested new ways of looking at the familiar story. In preparing his libretto, Adamo immersed himself in both the texts and their scholarship to develop a narrative about Jesus and his followers that grapples with the questions these new texts raise. For example, what role could Mary Magdalene—whom Jesus describes as having “a heart more directed to the Kingdom of Heaven than all your brothers”—have played in the evolution of Jesus’s ideas? If they had married, how might this have affected the bitter rivalry—minutely detailed in the Gnostic texts— between Mary and his disciple Peter? For that matter, why, in the canonical Gospels, is Jesus consistently described as being “born of fornication?”

These various questions suggested to Adamo one overriding one, which he phrases as: “What is the role of eros in a godly life?” Traditional interpretations of the Jesus story duck the problem, attributing to Jesus a celibacy he never claimed and exhorting believers to demonize sexuality and attribute it exclusively to women. (Explaining, perhaps, why the most-admired female figure in Roman Catholicism is the Virgin Mary.) But these interpretations ignore these Gnostic descriptions of Mary Magdalene as both “companion” and apostle; lines like Peter’s, in Thomas, urging Jesus to  “make Mary leave us, for females are not worthy of this life;” that perception of Jesus as illegitimate child, and the enigma of the mother who bore that child.

So Adamo wondered: could you wrestle with desire and holiness via a music-drama in which no convenient miracles rescue any of the characters from the results of their actions; a drama in which the nearly-erased women characters were restored, in full, to the story? And could you do it without resorting to the fantasizing of, say, Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ, or to the medieval, folkloric Magdalene imagery—unsupported by Scripture—of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code? “Some have asked me whether I mean The Gospel of Mary Magdalene as an ‘alternative history’ like  The Plot Against America,” novelist Philip Roth’s counterfactual fantasia in which Charles Lindbergh is elected president. But—as the 100-plus footnotes of his 80-page libretto attest— Adamo wanted a factual fantasia. “I don’t say—I can’t say—that the Jesus story played out as I wrote it. I can say that— based on the texts that we now all share—no one can disprove it played out this way.”

Both playwright and composer, Adamo weighs the sound of his language as closely as his music: and the diction of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene tries to strike a precise balance between the personal and the iconic. “If there was a lost ‘original’ of the New Testament of which all our inherited versions are magical variations, how might its characters have spoken? Candidly enough to be credible as people and yet obliquely enough that you’d be convinced by their later transformation into archetype. Also, with no archaisms. For good or ill, this is a modern story.”  (Ariel and Chana Bloch’s “frank, elegant” translation of The Song of Songs proved an indispensable reference.)

Set design for The Gospel of Mary Magdalene by David Korins
Photo by Cory Weaver

Musically, too, the same questions were at the forefront: “No archaisms,” and no Middle-Easternisms, either. The framing story of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene follows five disillusioned “moderns” who can neither wholly accept nor wholly abandon their traditions: it’s they who conjure the ancient tale to life. So, in sound as well as word, “the time is now, the place is Galilee, the first century C.E.,” as the libretto asserts. Balancing the intimate with the epic became indispensable when composing for 17 soloists, a chorus of 48, a Strauss-sized orchestra, and electronic sound design.

As in his previous scores, Adamo’s music for The Gospel of Mary Magdalene extends from unadorned lines to clusters of granitic density; the composer weaves a web of leitmotifs that make audible a sense of destiny that each character intuits but none fully understands. But the larger forces enable here a characterization by texture and tone color that wasn’t as readily available in the smaller orchestras of Little Women or Lysistrata.

“For example,” says Adamo, “there’s this boiling cauldron of triple bassoons and marimba under Mary’s madness up front, which then yields to an aria beginning deep in the bass register and evanescing into a cloudbank of piccolo and glockenspiel. Miriam’s scena begins just with pulsing pairs of woodwinds, but thickens little by little into a grinding polychord: and the chorus in Act Two trade these slightly skewed triads so that you’ll hear, if I’ve done it correctly, an ebb and flow of consonance and dissonance.” When describing what he wanted from the score, Adamo repeats the word iridescent: “I wanted the feeling you get from a flashlight that sends beams of light ricocheting around a vast cathedral or underground cave but that never fully illuminates it at any given time.”

But—even as that chorus, in Act Two, makes a small ceremony of five entire verses, verbatim, of the gnostic The Gospel of Mary—don’t expect an oratorio. “I’m interested in drama, which invites conflict, humor, ambiguity; whereas an oratorio assumes consensus. A Bach Passion commemorates the Easter myth: it doesn’t interrogate it.” Nor is the opera meant as “a graffito scrawled across the New Testament: I couldn’t write this piece if I didn’t love this tradition as much as I argue with it.” The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is designed as a character study, an intellectual safari, an emotional journey, and, above all, an adventure:  “From Athens till now, the theatre has always been a safe place to talk about dangerous things. What can be more necessary? What can be more fun?”

Thomas May is a frequent contributor to San Francisco Opera Magazine. His books include Decoding Wagner and The John Adams Reader.

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Director's Note

Kevin Newbury

The director of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene offers his thoughts on this world premiere.

Download a PDF of the article here

Part epic grand opera, part intimate Passion play, Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene encourages us to ask new questions of an iconic story. The protagonists of the piece are, in many ways, the modern day seekers who do not want to lose the story that has meant so much to them. We see the story through their eyes. As these seekers literally dig into the past, uncovering strata of human history, they take in an alternate version of the story of Yeshua, Mary, Miriam, and Peter. Our production approach highlights this idea of “digging into history” by setting the opera in an archeological dig site in the Holy Land. For me, the entire opera is about the search for new meaning in a familiar story. Mary searches for meaning in her own life; Yeshua searches for what would become his inspirational message and philosophy; Miriam searches for a way to reconcile with a son who has denied her; Peter searches for a way to stay true to the movement while contending with a strong, new female presence. Our goal is to ask questions of this story and to look at these characters as real human beings.

The Gnostic gospels suggest that Mary was a key player in Yeshua’s movement and, regardless of an individual audience member’s religious beliefs, the questions Adamo raises seem well worth asking. What part of the story was left out?  How would human history have been different if, as the Gnostic gospels suggest, Yeshua’s co-preacher and co-leader had been a woman? How can sexuality and spirituality be reconciled?  

I was brought up to believe that this story was true and that it unfolded as the canonical Bible suggests. As I came to terms with my own religious beliefs as a teenager, I became fascinated by organized religion and how individual faiths differ and align. It has been a great honor for me to continue my own search while directing Mary Magdalene, a piece that does what I believe all great art should do: force us to reconsider our shared history and examine how it informs our place in the world today.  It has been inspiring to watch this amazing cast inhabit these larger-than-life characters, and to watch the modern-day seekers observe the story as if they were learning it for the very first time.

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Grand Opera Jesus

Damian Fowler

Jesus of Nazareth makes his operatic debut--from Listen Magazine's summer 2013 issue.

When Jesus appears in the first act of Mark Adamo’s new opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, he’s described in the libretto’s stage directions as a “gaunt young lion of a man, thirty but seeming younger.” Thrust into the heart of the drama, Yeshua — he sports the Hebrew version of his name — is called on to pass judgment on a woman accused of adultery. In Adamo’s conceit, which conflates different biblical characters for dramatic purposes, the woman is Mary Magdalene. During this first encounter, Yeshua and Mary make a powerful connection that stirs them body and soul, sparking the drama so characteristic of a man and a woman in grand opera.

But what’s remarkable is that this Jesus — singing as ardently as Alfredo, Calàf or Des Grieux — is grappling with the meaning of love, desire and destiny. The world premiere of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene at the San Francisco Opera on June 19 marks a watershed moment in the history of grand opera: it’s the operatic debut of Jesus Christ, the person. “I don’t know another opera that has Jesus as a character,” says David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, who commissioned this large-scale work from Adamo more than six years ago.

Of course, the Passion of Jesus Christ has inspired hundreds of choral works over the centuries, most notably the sacred oratorios of J.S. Bach (the St. Matthew Passion and St. John Passion) and Handel’s Messiah. But the difference, according to Adamo, is that such treatments of scripture do not seek to unsettle home truths or question Jesus’s motives. Inevitably, they treat the Bible as law, not art. “One of the differences between opera and oratorio, regardless of what the subject is, is that oratorio rests on consensus,” says Adamo. “Opera is a form of theater that rests on conflict, where you thrash out different views that compete to be taken as true.”

In Adamo’s telling, Yeshua is still figuring out, well, how to become Jesus.

Wagner considered the subject of Christ as the basis for a drama or an opera. Ever drawn to the idea of the messianic hero, the composer drafted what he called a “poetic sketch,” titled Jesus of Nazareth, around 1848. He sought to impose his own philosophy on the familiar New Testament story, but ultimately dismissed the sketch as unworthy of an opera. Wagner’s version of Jesus, however, may have prefigured some of the heroes of his later operas, for whom death is catharsis.

Perhaps the most recent precedent for Adamo’s idea to put Jesus on stage is the Massenet oratorio Marie-Magdaleine, first performed in Paris in 1873. While the composition does have operatic elements — and a duet between Jesus and Mary Magdalene — Massenet hedged his bets by referring to the work as a “sacred drama.” At the time, the piece created a sensation (and, most likely, elicited a shudder from conservatives), though Massenet was praised by Saint-Saëns for handling the sentiments between Jesus and Mary Magdalene with the “utmost tactfulness.” The work later moved Tchaikovsky to tears, though at first he had reservations about the subject matter. He wrote in a letter to his patroness and friend, Nadezhda von Meck, “I started with a certain prejudice. It seemed to me too bold to make Christ sing arias and duets, but it appeared that the work is full of merits, elegance and charm.”

Those nineteenth-century taboos about depicting Jesus outside of a church or a sacred setting still linger. When Gockley first heard about Adamo’s idea for an opera about Mary Magdalene, he says his first reaction was something like, “Wow, this is going to be a hot potato.” Gockley says it was clear to him that “hallowed belief was going to be challenged.” And yet Gockley was fascinated by the story, which he saw as a work of art, “not a work of history . . . or a work of spiritual truth.”

The composer’s interest in Mary Magdalene was sparked by “The Saintly Sinner,” an in-depth article by critic Joan Acocella that appeared in The New Yorker in 2006. The article suggested that the long-standing perception of Mary as a reformed prostitute was a papal fiction, a conflation of various women, created by the church as a kind of cipher for all female sexuality. Adamo also took advantage of new scholarship surrounding the Gnostic gospels unearthed in Egypt in 1945, which include the Gospels of Thomas and Philip, and the Gospel of Truth. These esoteric works cast light on an earlier Gnostic text discovered in 1898, the Gospel of Mary, and, more importantly, gave Adamo the artistic room to reimagine Jesus’s canonical story.

“The first challenge was to see if there was enough psychological detail in the scriptures, which were not really a history of persons,” says Adamo. “They were written to be mythically varied guides to preaching that took on a little grain of historical sand and then spun into a beautiful pearl. So I didn’t know if there was enough in them to build a character that wasn’t going to be a handy megaphone for homily.”

But there was — in fact, Adamo found enough information to see these objects of religious reverence as human originals. The Gospel of Philip, for example, departs from the New Testament with this revelation: “The companion of the Savior was Mary Magdalene. He loved her more than all the disciples, and used to kiss her often on her mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended . . . . They said to him, ‘Why do you love her more than all of us?’ The Savior answered and said to them, ‘Why do I not love you as (I love) her?’ ”

Another Gnostic find, from Thomas, has Peter declaring to Jesus: “Make Mary leave us, for females don’t deserve life.”

As a librettist, Adamo could imagine the possible conflict among the dramatis personae, especially Mary, Jesus and Peter. He pictured putting the three characters in a room together to work out their differences. There were rich possibilities here, big questions about the nature of spirituality and sexuality. Would Jesus side with Peter or Mary? And then there was the thorny question of Jesus’s legitimacy and why, even in the canonical Gospel of John, Jesus is perceived as being “born of fornication.”

“If the opera were going to be about one question — the most important ache, if you will — it is ‘What is the place of sexuality in godly life?’ ” says Adamo. For the composer, who was raised Catholic, this is very much a personal story, an attempt to reconcile his own sexuality with his faith. “When I came of age, I realized I would not be falling in love with the people who the church expected me to fall in love with, and knew that the rhetoric that was being presented to me — that it was a choice, that it was wicked — did not square with my experience,” he says. “This is my piece, which is both the biggest topic I could take on and the story of my life.”

While Adamo’s opera is speculative, departing from the well-known version of Christ’s narrative, he maintains this isn’t a fantasy in the vein of Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Adamo weaves his story from all the available theology. He researched every reference meticulously, going so far as to footnote his libretto, citing his sources. While he let his imagination fill in the blanks, the composer considers the piece a factual fantasia.

Fundamentalists will likely object to Adamo’s incursion into this sacred realm since holy texts and images for them are exempt from the tampering of an artist. And yet, the intention behind The Gospel of Mary Magdalene seems anything but disrespectful. It’s the fervent dream of a disaffected Christian who wishes to go back to the tender,
human story before the myths took hold, before the magic and the miracles distracted the eye and heart from what Adamo believes is the story’s real value. He doesn’t want to ruin the sacred truths; he wants to restore them to their pre-institutional origins. “Before it was glamorized into miracle and hardened into dogma,” he says, “it was people struggling with what it means to be godly in a human body.”

Adamo’s work shares something with Colm Tóibín’s novel (recently adapted for the Broadway stage) The Testament of Mary, in that both works imagine the reality of biblical characters before their tale became set in stone for two thousand years. Tóibín presents a portrait of Mary (the mother of Jesus, not Magdalene) as a grief-stricken, sometimes angry figure resisting the attempts by the writers of the Gospels to define the Christian narrative. They cajole her like aggressive tabloid reporters, pressing a reluctant source to create an image of Jesus that serves their own ends. Tóibín cites the José Saramago novel The Gospel of Jesus Christ as a precursor to his own humanist take on the Christian story, although his work is the first play to use Mary as a human character. He acknowledges that such empathetic reimagining threatens some people. “Many like the line between fact and fiction to be clear,” he says. “And for many, this is sacred ground and it is not for mortals to walk on. This is called belief, maybe, but it often can become intolerant.”

In The Testament of Mary, Jesus’s divinity is refracted through the eyes of a woman who wonders if her son is “out of his mind.” But Tóibín, like Adamo, trades the certitude of the preacher for the invention of the artist. “The theater, as much as the novel, is essentially a secular space. It is where we humans dramatize our fears and our dreams. It is not an altar,” he says. “I think I know the difference between a stage and an altar, between a human voice and a tone that suggests the world beyond us.”

Still, in Tóibín’s drama, Jesus remains offstage, the subject of someone else’s story. This is in keeping with the more recent theater tradition — although there are notable musical-theater exceptions, such as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell. “Serious modern drama has largely steered clear of Jesus as a main dramatic character,” writes Andrew W. Hass in Jesus in History, Thought and Culture. “Perhaps this is in part because the role of Jesus must be assumed by a live actor, and as the success of novels and poetry has shown, and indeed the Gospels themselves, Jesus is more alive when he is narrativized and re-narrativized in the imaginative constructs of the text.”

Adamo’s attempt to put Jesus and Mary on stage, however belatedly, is already an audacious move. And with a cast of twenty-four, a chorus of forty-eight and a Richard Strauss–scaled orchestra of eighty musicians, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene promises to be a grand affair. It will be up to baritone Nathan Gunn and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke to make us believe.

This article was published in the Summer 2013 edition of Listen Magazine and reprinted here with kind permission.

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Much Ado about Gnosticism

Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre

In 2003, The DaVinci Code tantalized the public with the suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were married, capitalizing on our fascination with deciphering esoteric knowledge and exposing the scandals of the sacred past. The novel draws on several 20th-century trends that have changed the way historians talk about Christian beginnings.

In fact, Jesus’ likely marital status—as unmarried, that is—remains relatively intact among scholars. However, research on the diversity of early Christianity, the role of women in the ancient church, and newly discovered ancient manuscripts has produced some consensus that the traditional history told about the Christian church needs significant revision.

St. Mary Magdalene with Eight Scenes from her Life, created in the 14th century.
Courtesy Bridgeman Art Library

Among the concepts getting a makeover is “Gnosticism,” a 17th-century term for the ancient heresy that the material world is corrupt and only those few with the right knowledge, or gnosis in Greek, can be saved. Traditionally, Gnosticism is characterized negatively as a dualistic, elitist, and highly mythological worldview promoted in the second and third centuries by heretical Christian teachers who brought too much speculative Greek philosophy to the orthodox Christian story of Jesus. But things changed with the 1945 discovery, at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, of a stash of papyrus books containing 46 texts, many unknown before. For the first time, we were able to read Gnostic thought on its own terms rather than through the evaluations of its detractors like Irenaeus, the 2nd-century Bishop of Lyons, whose work gives “Gnostics” their name and negative evaluation. Irenaeus sought to define true Christianity by denouncing a variety of groups as propagating “miserable fables” and false knowledge.

There was no First Church of Gnosticism on every 2nd-century street corner vying with orthodox Christians. However, as historian David Brakke argues, we can talk about a specific Christian school of Gnostic thought. The Secret Revelation of John, three copies of which were found at Nag Hammadi, describes a revelation given by Christ to his disciple John concerning knowledge about God, the divine realm, and the origin of the world and humanity. God the Father, or the Invisible Spirit, is not the biblical God, but is pure perfection and beyond description. The divine realm is populated by emanations of the Thought of the Invisible Spirit. Figures like the self-generated Christ, Sophia (Wisdom), Truth, and the Perfect Human, often presented in male and female pairs, are all beings, or ideals of divine fullness. Together they are the complexity of divine thought. The material world is a flawed copy of the divine world, but all humans who cultivate true knowledge will achieve ascent to the divine realm.

According to Karen King, leading scholar on The Secret Revelation of John, this strange and elaborate text is our earliest known attempt at a comprehensive Christian theology, cosmology, and salvation. This school of thought likely raised the ire of Irenaeus with its emphasis on philosophical speculation led by authoritative teachers, but taken on its own terms, it is a message of hope in which humanity receives saving enlightenment from the divine Savior Christ. Some similar ideas appear in the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary as well as in the New Testament Gospel of John.  

Is this all part of a heresy or religion called “Gnosticism”? No. This period was a time of lively debate and creative thinking about spiritual knowledge, personal fate, the wisdom of ancient texts, and the authority of teachers. Although there was great diversity of approaches and views within and across groups, Christians, Jews, and followers of Greek and Roman religions in this period were all interested in these topics. Perhaps because of globalization in the last half-century, these submerged voices from early Christianity have also captured the attention of contemporary people who are interested in new ways of approaching religion, science, human suffering, and spiritual knowledge.

The Nag Hammadi library first gained popular attention with the publication of The Gnostic Gospels, by Elaine Pagels. Her groundbreaking work showed how these new texts, along with others outside the New Testament canon traditionally criticized as “Gnosticism,” shared a view of human salvation as a quest for divine wisdom and, perhaps, a more democratic view of church than that of the orthodox bishops. Although not feminist in a modern sense, these texts have more female metaphors for the divine, as well a thoroughly positive image of figures like Mary Magdalene as an intimate intellectual and spiritual partner of Jesus and a leader in her own right. We know that some early Christians claimed Mary’s authority for their teachings about a mystical ascent of the soul and the irrelevance of gender difference to spirituality. Perhaps this is one of the reasons such groups were rejected by bishops like Irenaeus. Mary Magdalene’s story might have been even more controversial than we think.
Melanie Johnson-DeBaufre is the associate professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Drew University and co-author of Mary Magdalene Understood. This article was based on the following books, recommended for futher reading:

Karen King, The Secret Revelation of John (Harvard, 2006)
David Brakke, The Gnostics (Harvard, 2010)
Charles Freeman, A New History of Early Christianity (Yale, 2009)
Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels (Vintange, 1989; original, 1979)

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"Lushly beautiful, suffused with ripe tonal harmonies and urgent, arching melodies that lodge immediately in the listener's memory."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Adamo has the ingenious knack for creating memorable themes whose recurrences serve as signposts for the drama, and his vocal writing is both urgent and shapely."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke "has a voice like a full moon; it beautifies and illuminates, giving the listener something special to contemplate."

  –San Jose Mercury News
Nathan Gunn "sang with a warm and flexible baritone and provided the finest vocal moments of the evening."

  –The Classical Review
"As Miriam, who offers a fascinating, but abruptly ended, side story of the Virgin, Maria Kanyova is outstanding."

  –San Francisco Examiner
"William Burden was a superb Peter—ardent, implacable and wrenching in his final moments of regret."

  –San Francisco Chronicle
"Conductor Michael Christie draws plush colorings and shimmering sounds from the orchestra...the production, directed fluidly by Kevin Newbury, uses a striking unit set designed by David Korins."

  –The New York Times
"Nathan Gunn sings with robust sound and...aching subtlety. You admire his daring in portraying Jesus in an opera."

  –The New York Times
"Sasha Cooke's Mary is a modern feminine ideal, opulently sensuous, insistently sensible, deeply feeling and demandingly honest."

  –The Los Angeles Times


The Gospel of Mary Magdalene Pre-Opera Talk by Sarah Cahill, June 25, 2013


Kayleen Asbo introduces Mary Magdalene with an overview of her various portrayals throughout the centuries:


Nathan Gunn entertained audiences as Papageno in The Magic Flute (2012):


Maria Kanyova was thrilling in her Company debut as Pat Nixon in Nixon in China (2012).


William Burden returns to San Francisco after his performance as Daniel J. Hill in the world premiere of Heart of a Soldier (2011).



Composer and librettist Mark Adamo is also the creative force behind the opera Little Women. In this clip, Joyce DiDonato performs "Things change, Jo" (Houston Grand Opera, 2000):


Maria Kanyova talks about her first visit to San Francisco in Behind the Voice:


Maria Kanyova answers Facebook fan questions:


  • Wed 06/19/13 7:30pm

  • Sat 06/22/13 8:00pm

  • Tue 06/25/13 8:00pm

  • Fri 06/28/13 8:00pm

  • Tue 07/2/13 7:30pm *

  • Fri 07/5/13 8:00pm *

  • Sun 07/7/13 2:00pm *

*OperaVision, HD video projection screens featured in the Balcony level for this performance, is made possible by the Koret-Taube Media Suite.


The world premiere of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene is made possible, in part, by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

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