San Francisco Opera is moving into uncharted waters of religious polemics.
General director David Gockley, known for his passion for producing new operas, has commissioned "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" by Mark Adamo for seven performances — longer than usual for a new opera — opening Wednesday and continuing through July 7.
Adamo wrote the libretto and music, adapting texts of Canonical and Gnostic gospels about a story he calls "shrouded in mystery and controversy" that addresses the nature of the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
Mary Magdalene was known to have been present at the New Testament's most important moments, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, but also was considered as a repentant prostitute, redeemed by Jesus. Declared a "fallen woman" by the pope in 591, it took until 1969 for the Roman Catholic Church to delete references to her as a sinner in liturgical material.
Yet Adamo's opera — like that of Dan Brown's 2003 best-seller "The Da Vinci Code," which brought the subject out of academic halls and into popular culture — offers a radically different view.
In Adamo's work, Mary Magdalene is not a prostitute, but seeks meaning in love affairs.
Adamo, who was raised Catholic, says, "Why is there still a continuing sense, ranging from unease to revulsion, which arises in us when we hear the suggestion that Jesus might have been married? I suggest that far more than any of us realize, we are subconsciously victimized by the historic negativity toward women that has been a major gift of the Christian church to the world."
During a recent lecture at the Jewish Community Center, one of many being offered in conjunction with the likely controversial work, Adamo said he wasn't a Biblical scholar, "but I play one on the radio."
Exhibiting impressive knowledge of the subject, he acknowledged his intention to free the material "from orthodoxies" and called a large production in an opera house "a safe place to talk about dangerous things."
Adamo, who is best known for his 1998 opera, "Little Women" (which is among the most frequently performed new works in the past two decades), assisted in gathering the cast of "Mary Magdalene." Sasha Cooke sings the title role and San Francisco favorite baritone Nathan Gunn sings Yeshua (the Hebrew-Aramaic name for Jesus). Maria Kanyova is Miriam, the mother of Yeshua, and William Burden is the apostle Peter.
Kevin Newbury is stage director, and Michael Christie, a young American conductor, is making his debut on the podium.IF YOU GO
The Gospel of Mary Magdalene
Presented by San Francisco Opera
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and June 28; 8 p.m. Saturday, Tuesday, June 28 and July 5, 2 p.m. July 7
Tickets: $22 to $340
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.comSPECIAL PROGRAMS
Insight panel: S.F. Opera Guild sponsors a discussion. 6 p.m. Monday, $5. S.F. Conservatory, 50 Oak St., S.F.
Pre-opera talks – 30-minute lectures begin one hour before every performance
Post-performance discussions – Free for ticket holders after every performance
"Opera on the Couch" – The opera's theme is examined from a psychoanalytic perspective. 5 p.m. July 7, free. Books Inc., 601 Van Ness Ave., S.F.