Composer John Adams on the grounds of Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Losing your religion may be an occupational risk for artists who like to weigh in on the Big Questions.
But when John Adams set out to write music representing the Crucifixion of Jesus, the composer underwent what he calls "a good old-fashioned crisis of faith."
"It was a very, very profoundly disturbing experience for me," said Adams, whose opera-oratorio "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" will have its world premiere Thursday at Walt Disney Concert Hall.
"I doubted whether my moral or spiritual powers were strong enough to try to take on this archetypal image, this event, which all the greatest artists in Western history, from Michelangelo to Johann Sebastian Bach to Bernini have dealt with. And then here's John Adams, a sort of secular liberal living in Berkeley, Calif., dealing with this."
In establishing himself as America's best-known as well as one of its most respected contemporary composers, Adams, 65, repeatedly has put his convictions and those of his audiences to the test. His operas have probed the ethics of nuclear weaponry ("Doctor Atomic"), the theological roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ("The Death of Klinghoffer") and the fissures in L.A.'s social fabric that were exposed by the 1994 Northridge earthquake ("I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky").
Now Adams has reentered the philosophical fray once more with "Gospel." A companion piece to "El Niño," the composer's 2000 Nativity opera-oratorio, the new work is Adams' vision of Christ's Passion, particularly as witnessed by the Christian savior's most important female disciple, Mary Magdalene. Other key figures in the piece, which has a libretto by Adams' longtime friend and frequent collaborator Peter Sellars, are Mary Magdalene's sister Martha and their brother Lazarus.
Adams, who also serves as the Phil's creative chair, said he'd conceived the idea of writing a sort of "El Niño" sibling work several years ago. But the opportunity didn't fully present itself until the Phil offered him a world-premiere commission.
Modesty and secular liberalism aside, Adams' take on his subject is a timely, politically engaged one and unabashedly so. However, the politics of "Gospel" are artfully melded with its broader humanistic and spiritual concerns.
What "strongly drew me to the story of the adult Jesus," Adams said, "was the fact that he spent his entire adult life surrounded by the most miserable of people — by homeless people, by the sick, by the deranged, by all the kind of people that we maybe walk by on the street and maybe reach in our pockets and give a dollar or $5 to but then are done with.
"And tragically these are also the people on whose backs budgets and acts of Congress today are being balanced. I think that this is a very meaningful story on a social level because Americans in this moment of national anxiety are basically beating up on the poor. We've always beat up on the poor, but now for some reason we've found the language that empowers us to abuse them even further."
For the Phil's world premiere this spring of the new piece, in oratorio version, mezzo-soprano Kelley O'Connor will sing Mary Magdalene, contralto Tamara Mumford will portray Martha, and tenor Russell Thomas will sing the role of Lazarus. Three countertenors, Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley, will share the role of the Narrator.
Gustavo Dudamel, the Phil's music director who will conduct the four performances, said that although "El Niño" and "Gospel" are intimately related, "they are completely two worlds." The Phil will unveil a staged version of Adams' "Gospel," directed by Sellars and again conducted by Dudamel, in March.
"It's like when you listen to Bach's St. Matthew Passion and then St. Luke's Passion," Dudamel said. "It's the same subject, of course; it's about God, it's about Jesus, but in different points of view."
The Mary depicted in Adams' "Gospel" is a complex and in many ways very contemporary heroine. The New Testament places her in the inner circle of Jesus' final days, at the Crucifixion, and at his burial. She also was the first person to witness Jesus' resurrection, according to Gospel accounts.
But in conceptualizing his work's central character, Adams said he didn't start by doing "a great deal of intense scholarly research." Instead, he concentrated on developing Mary's archetypal qualities.
"She's referred to just literally in passing in several of the Gospels," he said. "And because Jesus cast out demons from her, a pope sometime in the 6th century decided that she must have been a harlot. And it's perhaps only been recently, particularly with the rise of the feminist movement and consciousness that people have looked back and said, 'Wait a minute, this is a person who might have been suffering from depression, might have been abused.'"