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The elusive 'Other Mary'

John Adams 'The Gospel According to the Other Mary' sparks debate among religious scholars about who exactly is this. Mary Magdalene? Mary of Bethany? Someone else?

August 25, 2012|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Tamara Mumford, contralto, sings as Gustavo Dudamel conducts the L.A. Phil in the premiere of John Adams' "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
Tamara Mumford, contralto, sings as Gustavo Dudamel conducts the… (Lawrence K. Ho, Los Angeles…)

Mary, the mother of Jesus, needs no introduction to much of humankind. But the "other Mary" of the New Testament — or "Marys," as the case may be — is a more elusive figure.

So when composer John Adams' new oratorio-opera "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" had its world premiere in May at Walt Disney Concert Hall, it touched off a lively discussion among a handful of religious scholars and bloggers. At issue is a matter that has divided biblical students for centuries and once prompted a ruling by Pope St. Gregory I the Great.

In Adams' oratorio, which has a libretto by acclaimed avant-garde director Peter Sellars, the other Mary of the title is Mary Magdalene, Jesus' most steadfast female disciple, who was present at the Crucifixion and later beheld the risen Christ. The Adams-Sellars work also identifies Mary Magdalene as the sister of Martha and Lazarus, whom the Christian savior raised from the dead, according to the New Testament.

(Adams' piece, which received strong reviews from The Times' Mark Swed, Alex Ross of the New Yorker and others, will be presented in a fully staged version next year at Disney Hall.)

But according to Jack Miles, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning "God: A Biography," the Gospels make clear that Mary of Magdala (a.k.a. Mary Magdalene) is not the sister of Martha and Lazarus. That Mary is Mary of Bethany, another woman entirely, Miles said.

What's more, Miles wrote in an email to The Times, the Gospel of Matthew (27:61) refers to yet another Mary who was sitting opposite the crucified Jesus' tomb with Mary Magdalene. She, not Mary Magdalene, is the real "other Mary," wrote Miles, a Pasadena resident and former Times book editor.

Miles wasn't the only onlooker to raise questions about the oratorio's conception of its central character. Several readers, including a Southern California pastor, also sent emails to The Times asserting that Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany and the so-called other Mary are three people.

Yet like the Richard III of Shakespeare's play, the Julius Caesar of Handel's opera, or the Jesus of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera, the biblical characters depicted in "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" are dramatic creations and musical avatars more than strictly historical figures.

In an interview before his work's premiere, Adams said that in constructing his version of Mary Magdalene he wasn't relying solely on biblical accounts, which he described as sketchy and "fractal." Rather, Adams said, he viewed Mary Magdalene as "an archetype of a woman who's had a hard past." In a sense she is a universal female figure, an Everywoman who transcends any specific time and place.

Sellars said that although "our fact-oriented age" demands concrete, empirical answers, the life and identity of Mary Magdalene, like those of many religious figures, is shrouded in profound mystery.

"So often we put spiritual matters in very materialistic terms, like, 'Now wait a minute, where did she grow up, and what school did she go to, and what kind of car did she drive?' And the Bible doesn't include any of that stuff," said Sellars, who'll direct the staged version of the work.

"For me, the reason we approach this material with poetry and music and exactly not with theology is because then it begins to yield some of its meanings and become more approachable for a wider range of people, possibly, and become a kind of mirror in very surprising and diverse ways that are not theologically oriented."

In contrast to her New Testament counterpart, the Mary Magdalene of Adams' oratorio inhabits a space that extends beyond the minimal words that the Gospels devote to her. Sellars' libretto incorporates writings by Native American poet and novelist Louise Erdrich, Mexican poet Rosario Castellanos and the influential Catholic journalist-social activist Dorothy Day. Mary Magdalene (sung at Disney Hall by mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor) gives voice to a number of these women.

"Dorothy Day is absolutely not Mary Magdalene. And Rosario Castellanos is certainly not Mary Magdalene," Sellars said. "And yet what's beautiful is the most private and intensely personal thoughts of each of those women have spoke something that creates a shared experience that reaches across centuries."

Sellars also pointed out that the libretto deliberately refers to the main character "Mary Magdalene" only in those instances where she is called that in the Gospel of John.

"What's so marvelous is the verse in John that names the women at the foot of the cross, there are always three or four Marys standing there," Sellars said. "And so that's the other reason why the title is 'Other,' is it's the other Mary, whoever you want to call her, however you want to construe her. It's the woman who's not Jesus' mother."

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