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Mary Magdalene (Sasha Cooke), right, anoints Yeshua (Nathan Gunn) with oil, in a scene from San Francisco Opera's world premiere of Mark Adamo's "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," Sunday, June 16, 2013 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group)

As an opera composer, Mark Adamo has always been drawn to strong female characters.

His first major opera, "Little Women," re-created Louisa May Alcott's March girls in a beguiling chamber setting; his second, "Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess," updated the Aristophanes comedy in which women convince their husbands to make love, not war.

Now, Adamo is placing another iconic woman at center stage: Mary Magdalene, the New Testament disciple who has inspired -- and inflamed -- religious scholars throughout history.

Mark Adamo’s "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," begins with the modern day discovery of writings purported to be that of Magdalene, before
Mark Adamo's "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," begins with the modern day discovery of writings purported to be that of Magdalene, before flashing back two thousand years to the time of Jesus, in the opera's world premiere, Sunday, June 16, 2013 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group) ( D. ROSS CAMERON )

"The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," making its world premiere in a San Francisco Opera production, is Adamo's most ambitious opera to date -- an evening-length work composed for 25 solo roles, a 48-member chorus and 65-piece orchestra. Commissioned by San Francisco Opera, it features acclaimed mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke in the title role, with baritone Nathan Gunn as Yeshua (Jesus), soprano Maria Kanyova as Miriam, and tenor William Burden as the apostle Peter. Directed by Kevin Newbury and conducted by Michael Christie, the opera is scheduled for seven performances at the War Memorial Opera House, through July 7.

Deep interest


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Adamo, 50, traces his fascination with Mary Magdalene to a Catholic upbringing in his native New Jersey (today, he lives in New York with his husband, Pulitzer Prize-winning composer John Corigliano.) But his interest came into sharp focus in 2007, when he read an article titled "The Saintly Sinner," by New Yorker magazine critic Joan Acocella.

The article recapped decades of scholarship, including noncanonical Gnostic Gospels discovered in 1945, and suggested that Mary Magdalene -- alternately described throughout history as a prostitute, a woman of superior intellect and Jesus' closest companion -- was neither saint nor sinner.

Last week, between rehearsals at the War Memorial, with David Korins' massive set for the opera under construction just feet away, Adamo said the suggestion "was vivid enough, and evocative enough," to inspire a grand opera.

Adamo got in touch with San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley, who, as head of Houston Grand Opera, had commissioned and premiered "Little Women" and "Lysistrata."

"I wrote to him and said 'What if?'" the composer recalled. "A New Testament from Mary Magdalene's point of view, using these texts; everyone involved is a human being, and the women speak as eloquently as the men."

Adamo spent the next six years researching the life of Mary Magdalene, basing his libretto on what he learned. The challenge, he notes, was making "astutely observed and credibly human characters."

A dearth of women

Opera, of course, has a long history of works based on liturgical sources. But women -- especially controversial figures such as Mary Magdalene -- often are noticeably absent. ("Marie-Magdeleine," the 1873 oratorio by French composer Jules Massenet, was a success in its time, but has largely disappeared from the repertoire.)

Mary Magdalene (Sasha Cooke), right, anoints Yeshua (Nathan Gunn) with oil, in a scene from San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Mark
Mary Magdalene (Sasha Cooke), right, anoints Yeshua (Nathan Gunn) with oil, in a scene from San Francisco Opera's world premiere of Mark Adamo's "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," Sunday, June 16, 2013 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. (D. Ross Cameron/Bay Area News Group) ( D. ROSS CAMERON )

Adamo's opera promises a rounded portrait of Mary, focusing on her relationship with Yeshua and exploring themes of duty, spirituality, desire and holiness.

The libretto humanizes the characters, Adamo said, making their social, sexual and spiritual struggles "as real as the marriage of your best friends." At the same time, those struggles "provided the material for a drama that would show why these characters were expanded into archetypes," he said.

Cooke, who makes her San Francisco Opera debut in the production, finds the character of Mary Magdalene irresistible.

"Mark has his own version of her, and he's made strong choices," said the mezzo, who sang with distinction in last month's San Francisco Symphony performances of Beethoven's "Missa Solemnis." "She's very forthright. She speaks her mind, and she thinks of herself as an equal to Jesus."

A transformation

Adamo's libretto gives the character a huge dramatic arc, she adds. "In the beginning, she's lost. She's searching for meaning. Throughout the piece, you see this beautiful transformation, both in her, and in Yeshua, through each other."

Cooke is savoring the role's poetic language and exquisite music.

"I'm so moved by Mark's use of music to bring this story to life," she said. "This is probably the most challenging role I've ever done. But it's telling that, at the end, my voice isn't fatigued at all. He writes so well for singers."

Is she concerned about the potential controversy surrounding the opera? Cooke says no.

"I think everyone will get different things from it," she said. "But I think everyone will get the essence -- this simple story of a man and a woman coming together. Who would have thought that would be groundbreaking?"

In good hands

Gockley, who has commissioned and premiered dozens of new operatic works in Houston and San Francisco, also seemed confident, although he allowed that he initially viewed the opera as something of a "hot potato."

As opening night approached, though, Gockley had nothing but praise for Adamo, whose compositions also include cantatas, choral and chamber works.

"Mark has a canny sense of musical structure, and he uses dramatic material in a very effective way," he said.

The "Mary Magdalene" libretto has all the elements of great opera, he added -- "A love affair, competition, jealousy -- and flesh-and-blood characters."

Adamo, meanwhile, said he's still in awe of the power of women's voices.

"I admit to a certain bias for that sound," he said. "You can get so much of the human condition in female roles."

Contact Georgia Rowe at growe@pacbell.net.

'THE GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE'

World premiere by Mark Adamo, presented by San Francisco Opera

Through: July 7
Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $22-$340 ($10 standing room tickets on sale 10 a.m. day of performance); 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com

Online Extra:

Scan this code with a smartphone or go to www.mercurynews.com/music to see a slideshow of "Mary Magdalene" rehearsal photos.