Imagine the story of the final days of Jesus Christ—known liturgically as the Passion—from a woman’s point of view. Composer John Adams and librettist Peter Sellars did just that, resulting in their oratorio The Gospel According to the Other Mary. This month, the St. Louis Symphony performs the work at Carnegie Hall, with David Robertson on the podium, as part of a worldwide celebration of Adams’s 70th birthday.
Adams and Sellars based the work on the idea that, while women surrounded Christ during his life and death, there are few accounts of them in the Bible. “In the Gospels, it’s quite remarkable that the women who are actually present at the foot of the cross and at the Resurrection are the only ones who don’t speak,” says Sellars. “You’re suddenly hearing that story with different insights, different perceptions, different understandings, and sometimes a completely different story line.”
The enigmatic Mary Magdalene was one of Christ’s Disciples who stayed by his side during the Crucifixion. Sellars sees her, and the others present in the Passion story, as universal characters. “These figures have been painted thousands of times—they resonate across centuries. They are not just historical figures, they have come to represent the range of human experience,” he continues. “We may never figure out who the actual Mary Magdalene was, but we can add to this rich character.”
“I don’t feel it’s the traditional story of Mary Magdalene,” adds Kelley O’Connor, who performed the role of Magdalene at the premiere in 2013 and reprises it at Carnegie Hall this month. “It’s definitely about different women who have played a Mary Magdalene–type of figure. There are so many different women I am evoking. I like the picture they are painting of a woman who might have been looked down upon, but her intentions were good. She meant well—she was just lost, and she was looking for help.”
In creating the libretto for The Other Mary, Sellars incorporated texts by many generations of women, including Catholic activist Dorothy Day, 11th-century mystic Hildegard von Bingen, African American feminist June Jordan, and Native American author Louise Erdrich. Sellars weaves this poetry and prose with biblical texts from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament.
The Other Mary superimposes a modern setting and story onto the biblical tale. Responding to the knowledge that Jesus and his Disciples took care of the poor and lived among them, the two co-creators cast Mary and her sister, Martha, as activists who help disadvantaged and homeless women. In the compelling opening scene, Mary is in a modern-day jail, having been arrested for taking part in a labor strike. The atmosphere is disturbing: In the next cell, a woman screams from the pain of withdrawal from her heroin addiction. “You hear someone howling for help, dealing with the reality of human needs. It’s all incredibly real,” says Sellars.
Though the work is sometimes presented as a staged drama, the Carnegie Hall performance will be in concert format. Robertson says he believes that makes for an even stronger impact. “I find that the power of the music is just enormous by itself. And while obviously a staging can bring other things to it, I think the music is so incredibly beautiful that it stands on its own marvelously,” he says. “It is telling the story that has been told in many different ecclesiastical musical pieces, but in this particular one, Adams is very helpful in providing lots of music for individual internal contemplation on the subjects. I find that way of approaching the piece is an extremely powerful one and makes the work very personal.”
Adams sees this aspect of the work as his responsibility. In Thomas May’s liner notes of the Deutsche Gramophone recording, Adams says, “It is the composer’s role to give emotional and psychological depth to a character or a scene. No other art form provides such potent tools.” Adams says this is a work that probes some deep and sometimes disturbing aspects of human behavior, touching on profound issues that include capital punishment, resurrection, and healing.
Adams and Robertson have enjoyed a working relationship that spans 20 years. Robertson has performed and recorded many of the composer’s large-scale works, including El Niño, City Noir, On the Transmigration of Souls, and the U.S. premiere of the Doctor Atomic Symphony, which he recorded with the St. Louis Symphony, who co-commissioned the work with Carnegie Hall. Adams speaks admiringly of both Robertson and the orchestra. “We as composers are always very grateful for somebody who believes in what we do and is willing to take risks,” he says. “David views his position with the St. Louis Symphony like a director of a great art museum who believes that the most exciting things are what’s being done right now.”
Robertson has long found inspiration in Adams’ music and has performed a number of his works with the St. Louis Symphony this season in celebration of the composer’s 70th birthday year. “[His pieces are] always very intelligent, but that intelligence doesn’t preclude playfulness,” he says of Adams’s works. “The music can have, at times, a kind of raucous American energy, and then go to the depths of philosophical and emotional understanding that few composers can achieve. It’s that combination—often in the same piece of music—that I find so stimulating.”
Robertson says he hopes that Adams enjoys a longevity equal to that of the composer Elliott Carter, who actively wrote masterworks well past his century mark. “What I am so grateful for is a corpus of work that is simply staggering, and is so appropriate to the time we live in. These are works that are both of their own time and yet continue to speak to us.”
Music journalist and media consultant Gail Wein is a contributor to NPR and Voice of America, and has written for The Washington Post, Musical America, Symphony Magazine, and NewMusicBox.
Friday, March 31 at 7:30 PM
St. Louis Symphony
JOHN ADAMS The Gospel According to the Other Mary
David Robertson, Music Director and Conductor
Kelley O’Connor, Mary Magdalene
Michaela Martens, Martha
Jay Hunter Morris, Lazarus
Daniel Bubeck, Countertenor
Brian Cummings, Countertenor
Nathan Medley, Countertenor
St. Louis Symphony Chorus
Amy Kaiser, Director
Pre-concert talk at 6:30 PM with composer John Adams and St. Louis Symphony Music Director David Robertson in conversation with Jeremy Geffen, Director of Artistic Planning, Carnegie Hall.