CU NOW rewards audiences, composers and performers

Adamo’s Gospel of Mary Magdalene is getting an intimate makeover

By Peter Alexander

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2016 CU NOW rehearsal. Photo by Peter Alexander

CU NOW, the University of Colorado Eklund Opera Program’s annual New Opera Workshop, is one of the most rewarding events on the Boulder classical music scene.

It is an opportunity to see how operas are put together. It is an opportunity to hear new works, often before their professional world premieres, and possibly, through feedback sessions with the composer, to influence the final product. And falling between the end of the main music season and the beginning of the summer festivals, it comes at a time when the classical scene is starting to get dry.

And that’s just the benefits for the audience. It almost goes without saying that the composer has the reward of seeing his work in an informal setting, where he can tweak the score and make improvements, and the singers reap the reward of learning a new work and preparing it for the composer. I count that a win-win-win.

Usually a workshop for completely new works, the NOW program goes in a different direction this year. Composer Mark Adamo is in Boulder to re-work his Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which was premiered by the San Francisco Opera in 2013 (under conductor Michael Christie, known locally for his years at the Colorado Music Festival). Following the somewhat controversial premiere, Adamo decided to revise the opera to make it smaller in scope than the San Francisco production, more intimate, more human.

Mark.Adamo

Composer Mark Adamo

Or as he was quoted in the CU press release, he wanted the show to be “more witty and modern, a lot closer to Godspell.”

Complete performances of the re-worked Gospel of Mary Magdalene will be free and open to the public, 7:30 p.m. Friday and 2 p.m. Sunday in the Imig Music Building Music Theater. The cast and ensemble of CU students and alumni will be accompanied by piano and harp.

Knowing the history of CU Now, Adamo says he was unsure about bringing a work that had already had a premiere, and a grand one at that, to Boulder. “Leigh (Holman, director of the Eklund Opera Program) talked to me about this, because ordinarily CU NOW does pieces before they’re given a premiere,” he says. “I wanted to revisit this because I’m not sure that the show that we staged (in San Francisco) was entirely the show that I meant.

Leigh.Holman

Leigh Holman

“It was a beautiful production, it was brilliantly cast, it was a beautiful set, it was a beautiful design, the direction was very sensitive, and yet . . . I didn’t feel like the tone was what I hoped for. And so Leigh said ‘we’re absolutely the place for that.’”

Adamo wrote both the libretto and the music for The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. The opera places Mary Magdalene at the center of the story, making her an important influence on Jesus’ teachings. Adamo’s libretto is based in part on the Gnostic Gospels, early Christian texts that were discovered in 1945. Not accepted by most Christian traditions, the Gnostic Gospels suggest that Jesus and Mary were lovers, and later married, and that Jesus was illegitimate.

The libretto grew out of Adamo’s own research, which was so thorough that the libretto even contains footnotes, some of which are sung. One important part of his goal was to counteract anti-female ideas of some Christian traditions. The opera opens with modern characters expressing their unease with the negativity toward sex and women that they have encountered in the church.

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San Francisco Opera production of The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Set by David Korins. Photo by Cory Weaver.

In the San Francisco production, which Adamo describes as “more King of Kings, if you will, that kind of Biblical spectacular look,” the modern characters got much less emphasis than he wanted. “Given the grandeur and the somberness of the setting, it was a stage that you could not do anything remotely personal, or witty,” he says.

To shift the focus back to the modern characters, and their relationship with the Biblical characters they conjure from their imaginations, Adamo cut the cast from 72 including chorus down to 16. “In San Francisco we had the five seekers (modern believers) and the chorus in modern dress, and then the Biblical characters, and all the supporting characters,” he explains. All of that has been reduced to the four principals—Yeshua (Jesus), Mary Magdalene, Miriam (Mary) and Peter—plus a dozen ensemble singers who take the other roles.

The original production was 2½ hours of music, plus intermission, which some listeners found to be ponderous. Adamo says he has reduced that to under 2½ hours including intermission. “Here’s the joke,” he says, “Nothing has been cut. A five-minute opening has been added, and the running time is shorter than in San Francisco.”

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Mark Adamo

“It starts with me,” he admits. “I had under-marked the tempos to so dramatic a degree that when I went back to the score in preparation for this production, I was looking at the metronome markings and saying, ‘what was I thinking? Are these tempos sponsored by Ambien?’

“All of this needs to move much more conversationally. When I met with (conductor) Andrew (Bisantz), I said, ‘assume the metronome markings you’ve got are 12 (beats per minute) slow.’”

Finally, Adamo wanted a setting that was not as monumental as the San Francisco production. “Is there a setting that is illustrative of the concerns of the show, that allows more nimbleness and a wider variety of dramatic tones?” he asks. “I did come up with that,” he says, adding slyly, “I’ll leave the surprise for you if you see the show.”

Adamo is particularly happy that the smaller number of singers and the more intimate setting has shifted the emotional focus of the performance. “For the most part, the stress is squarely on what the performers are doing and how they are defining the space and the emotional terms of the piece, rather than anything more elaborate,” he says.

“That and making the whole stage into a group, rather than principals and then a chorus, have been the principal innovations, and it has been a delight.”

# # # # #

CU NOW
Leigh Holman, founder and artistic/general director

The Gospel of Mary Magdalen
By Mark Adamo
Andrew Bisantz, conductor

7:30 p.m. Friday, June 16
2 p.m. Sunday, June 18
Music Theatre, Imig Music Building, CU

Free and open to the public

Advisory: These performances include adult content, sexual situations, and a stylized suggestion of violence, and may not be suitable for children.
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