The work which was commissioned by the Orchestra had its premiere as
a concert oratorio in May 2012, with a view towards the present (March 2013)
“Surprise wakes me up to the world
I don’t want to fall back on a
solution I found in the past and brand myself,” Adams reportedly told a
Julliard graduating class. “I want each piece to be new, to be a statement of
who I am and where I am in my life.”
True to this vision, Adams’ musical expression has moved rhythmically and
harmonically from his earlier minimalism. However, the essence of Adams as a
self described “secular liberal living in Berkeley, California,” has
remained unchanged. He is a man concerned with the political, social and
spiritual implications of the world around him. Among his operatic works are
The Death of Klinghoffer, which juxtaposes the plight of middle class
Jews and Arab terrorists, and Dr. Atomic, which examines Robert
Oppenheimer’s concern with the creation of the atomic bomb. At age 65, Adams
has survived a great deal of critical pounding not only for musical “flaws”
(repetitive arpeggios in Nixon in China), but for social and political
views some have considered offensive. Nevertheless Adams has remained a
composer unafraid to speak to power.
The Other Mary has undergone changes since its premiere last
spring. Commissioned to be 90 minutes long — it ran close to 140 minutes, and
was delivered late in a difficult season when the Philharmonic was also
presenting the first of its Mozart/Da Ponte operas. Most reviewers judged the
work — particularly its first act, to require cutting. The new, staged
version is not perceptibly shorter — and the first act still seems less
coherent than the second, and a bit overlong.
The chutzpah of staging large vocal pieces in their open concert
space seems to be paying off for the Philharmonic. Perhaps the abstract nature
of this particular libretto suited the spare settings Sellars created. But the
presentation of this work was the most satisfactory and most accessible in
terms of comfortable visibility of those I’ve attended at Disney Hall.
The orchestra presented a fascinating sight — its last row, a ring of
extraordinary percussion instruments; various gongs, tam-tams, an array of
tuned Almglocken (cow bells). In addition to the usual woodwind and brass, the
score also calls for a harp, a piano, a bass electric guitar and a cimbalom, a
hammered dulcimer, which produces crisp, yet lingering metallic twangs. The
cast included six singers: Mary and her sister Martha, mezzo sopranos; their
brother, Lazarus, a tenor, and three narrators — counter tenors, who most
often sing in exquisite harmonies — but also take on solo roles. There are
also three dancers — two male and one female, who sometimes shadow, sometimes
interact with the three singers. The dancers were a brilliant addition in terms
of clarifying and enriching the action of the plot. All performed on a raised
platform to the conductor’s left. A table and chairs were to his right. The
Master Chorale — called on to sing, shout, moan, and even don and shed
costumes, was ranged on a ledge behind the orchestra. The libretto was
projected on the wall behind them.
The libretto of “the Other Mary was created by Sellars from Old and New
Testament sources, from the works of writers Rosario Castellanos, Rubén
Darío, Primo Levi, June Jordan, Louise Erdrich, Hildegard of Bingen, and from
the journals of Catholic activist, Dorothy Day. Whereas Day’s somewhat
declamatory words sounded intrusive, the excerpts from Levi’s Passover used
in the context of the Last Supper, lifted the spirit. The title character,
“the other Mary” and central figure in this passion is Mary Magdalene. It
is through her anger, suicidal confusion, her inability to love and believe,
that we experience the death and resurrection of both Lazarus and Jesus.
Martha’s energy and struggles are devoted to achieving social justice for the
downtrodden. Jesus never appears in the work.
From its very first moment, The Other Mary drops us into a
musically and visually harsh and painful place. “The next day in the city
jail we were searched for drugs,” says Mary as the dancers and singers enact
humiliating assaults and searches to wild dissonances in the horns and
From there the story moves back and forth in time. Scenes depicting social
activism — the two women create a home for unemployed women — or a
Chavez-led farm workers protest, are interspersed with those of Christ’s last
The Gospel According to the Other Mary is too intricate and intense
for a first time audience to grasp. Granted that there are operas I would much
rather listen to than see, I think the spare staging of this abstract work
galvanized language that might otherwise sound hollow. The movements that
accompanied the passionate choral writing added power to even to those
utterances. The explosive and evocative orchestral score is stacked with layers
of sound and rhythmical variations. Strange sonorities, melodies and shreds of
melody flash by before one can quite grasp what one has heard. The effect is
The six singers, who have been performing their roles for many months by
now, seemed perfect in their parts. Adams wrote the role of Mary for Kelley
O’Connor, whose voice and acting encompassed extraordinary and rapid mood
shifts. Tamara Mumford, the steadier Martha, revealed a gleaming lower
register. Russel Thomas, as Lazarus sang with power and energy. Daniel Bubeck,
Brian Cummings, and Nathan Medley, the countertenors, told their story with a
kind of sweet innocence that reminded me of the three boys in The Magic Flute.
There is no choreographer listed in the program, but dancers Michael
Schumacher, Anani Saouvi, Troy Ogilvie managed to demonstrate an extraordinary
range of movement and emotion on a small, crowded platform. The chorus, led by
Grant Gershon performed with verve. And in the center of it all, conductor
Gustavo Dudamel beat weird rhythms and cued his instrumentalists with
Though Adams and Sellars are said to have described the time of the oratorio
as “the eternal present,” it is not so. One part is set in the last days of
Christ’s life — the other, however — except for a few loose strands — is
tightly tethered to the United States in the 20th century. One wonders how the
quotations and references to our nearly century old Catholic Workers Movement
— to Cesar Chavez, or to the Teamsters Union, which can give pause to
contemporary Americans, will be understood in Europe, where the work will soon
It may not matter. The music will make the composer's intentions clear to
sympathetic listeners. The Disney Concert Hall audience was moved to long and
vociferous applause. I, for one wouldn't have minded hearing the work all over
again — right at that moment.
The Gospel According to the Other Mary by John Adams will be
performed in London on March 16th, in Lucerne on March 20th, Paris, on March
23rd and in New York March 27th of this year.
Cast and production information
Composer: John Adams. Libretto: Peter Sellars. Conductor: Gustavo Dudamel.
Mary: Kelley O’Connor; Martha:Tamara Mumford; Lazarus: Russell Thomas.
Narrator: Daniel Bubeck: Narrator: Brian Cummings; Narrator: Nathan Medley.
Dancers: Michael Schumacher, Anani Saouvi, Troy Ogilvie. Designer and Director:
Peter Sellars. Chorus Director: Grant Gershon.