John Adams' Psychedelic Oratorio Gives Voice To 'The Other Mary'

Mar 23, 2014
Originally published on March 26, 2014 9:36 am

For the millennium, in 2000 American composer John Adams completed a compelling, large-scale oratorio based on the nativity story called El Niño. Now he's composed a companion piece, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, a Passion oratorio mounted with his usual collaborator, the stage director and librettist Peter Sellars. A recording of the two-hour work with Gustavo Dudamel leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic was released this month.

Describing the work to NPR's Arun Rath, Adams says, "There is no person who plays the role of Jesus. There is no Mel Gibson. There is no Victor Mature or Burt Lancaster. Actually, everyone in the cast quotes Jesus at one time or another. He's just there as a luminous presence. To me Jesus is more an embodiment, a spirit rather than an actual living flesh-and-blood person." Hear more of their conversation at the audio link.

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Once again, you're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

America's own John Adams has been called one of the world's greatest living composers. From his Pulitzer Prize-winning lament for the dead of 9/11 called "On the Transmigration of Souls," to the triumph of his opera "Nixon in China," John Adams has tested his boundaries and our own time and again. The L.A. Philharmonic just released the first ever recording of John Adams' latest oratorio, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary."


RATH: The libretto in this work is made up entirely of existing text - in this case, passages from the New Testament. But Adams and his librettist, Peter Sellers, also chose modern text to supplement the stories of the passion of Jesus and the resurrection of Lazarus. It's a device they also used 14 years ago on a companion piece, the story of Jesus' birth they titled "El Nino."

JOHN ADAMS: Peter Sellers and I chose texts that were largely by women. I figured that women probably knew something about giving birth. So when it came to telling the other end of the tale, you know, the arrest and crucifixion of Jesus, we took pretty much the same tact. We used the Biblical narrative, but we interwove it with contemporary text including Dorothy Day, the Catholic social activist, and Rosario Castellanos, great Mexican poet, Primo Levi and several others as well.

RATH: And you start with great intensity with this text from Dorothy Day, which describes a scene in a prison.


ADAMS: This is a passion oratorio that starts not with a gloomy, lugubrious chorus but with a woman locked in a prison cell next to another woman who's withdrawing from a heroin addiction.


ADAMS: So it starts, as they say in media race, really at extremely intense level and airily lets up for the next two hours.

RATH: What is the perspective on the life of Jesus that you're trying to explore? Who is the other Mary?

ADAMS: Well, the other Mary, of course, is Mary Magdalene, about whom there's enormous mystery and various interpretations. And I don't really care about whether there was a historical person or not. I mean, for me, all of these characters are what I call mythic archetypes. To me, she's a damaged woman, a woman who may have had a very brutal past.

She may have been abused as a child. She certainly was abused by men. Possibly, she had to indulge in prostitution to support herself. And she's found in Jesus, you know, hope and spiritual salvation. But she's frustrated because she also loves him carnally, as they used to say, and can't get what she needs from him on that level.


ADAMS: What did very much please me was the way that we treated Jesus because there is no person who plays the role of Jesus. There's no Mel Gibson. There's no Victor Mature or Burt Lancaster. Actually, everyone in the cast quotes Jesus at one time or another. The tenor, wonderful Russell Thomas, who also does play the role of Lazarus, will be Jesus for a moment. And then even Mary Magdalene will be Jesus for a moment or the chorus will be Jesus or the counter tenors.

And so you don't actually have him there. He's just there as a kind of luminous presence. But to me, that's very, very eloquent, because I feel that, you know, to me Jesus is more an embodiment, a spirit than an actual living flesh and blood person.


RATH: My guest is composer John Adams, and we're talking about his new work, "The Gospel According to the Other Mary." You have dealt with spiritual themes before, but there's something about this work in particular that - I thought of you as an irreverent composer at times, but this is not an irreverent work. Do you know what I mean?

ADAMS: Oh, yes, I do know what you mean. You know, this is, I would say, the most gravitas of any piece of mine, including "Doctor Atomic" which, you know, is about the atomic bomb or the death of Klinghoffer, which is about terrorism, both very dark and somber topics.

However, with that said, what I love about with "Other Mary" is that despite the wrenching scenes of Lazarus' death and the execution of Jesus and, you know, the grief of the women who loved him, there are these moments in it of just sublime grace where the chorus just comes in and, you know, the first time it does it, it sings a song (unintelligible) a little Spanish song by Rosario Castellanos. And she's just pure and full of life and sensuality and even eroticism, which I set in the original Spanish.


RATH: What's also fascinating here, you really bear down on where the mysticism intersects with the political in Jesus.

ADAMS: Well, of course, Jesus was provocative. You know, he spoke on behalf of the powerless. And, you know, the great irony of my composing this was that I composed it during the period leading up to the last presidential campaign. So I listened to, you know, all the right wing, you know, blowhards talking about how the poor are just, you know, freeloading, and they're, you know, taking food stamps and not working as they properly should.

And maybe we should take their food stamps away from them and take their welfare away from them. And, you know, that'll prod them to get up off their behinds and find a job. And so I realized that things are really no different today than they were in the time of Pontius Pilate.


RATH: It actually makes me think of a passage from the Gospel of Matthew, the part about the final judgment where Jesus talks about the dispossessed, you know, the hungry, the stranger, the prisoner, that when you mistreat them, you mistreat me.

ADAMS: Well, I think, really, in a sense, that's the essence of this oratorio. And I think it's also for me, of course, the issue of rebirth because I do actually set the crucifixion and Jesus' death and his resurrection. I couldn't believe that I was doing it, you know?

I'm not a particularly religious person, and I had not given a great deal of thought to that since my childhood. And yet here I was sitting in my studio in Berkeley, California, addressing, you know, the symbol - probably the all-time critical symbol in the western world and trying to find musical utterance for it.


RATH: That's composer John Adams. His most recent dramatic work is "The Gospel According to the Other Mary." Recordings with the Los Angeles Philharmonic have just been released. John Adams, a real pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

ADAMS: It's been a terrific pleasure. Thank you, Arun.


RATH: And for Sunday, that's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath. Check out our weekly podcast. Look for WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED on iTunes or on the NPR app. And you can follow us on Twitter @NPRWATC. We're back next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week.

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