03 Apr 2013

The Gospel According to the Other Mary, Los Angeles

Composer John Adams’ smashing, crashing and poignant The Gospel According to the Other Mary, created in collaboration with Peter Sellars, made its second appearance at Disney Hall with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.

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) staged version.

“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 trembling strings.

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 days.

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 overwhelming.

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 undemonstrative competence.

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 be performed.

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.

Estelle Gilson

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.