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Composer Mark Adamo has made music out of classic books in opera form. His "Little Women" is among the most produced American operas today. He also composed an operatic adaptation of Aristophanes Greek drama "Lysistrata." And tonight, Adamo's latest work premieres at the San Francisco opera.

"The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" tells the story of Mary, Jesus and his disciples. Cy Musiker of member station KQED reports that this work is a bit more controversial than Adamo's past projects.

CY MUSIKER, BYLINE: Mark Adamo says he grew up a good Catholic in South Jersey in the mid-'70s. But his mother divorced her first husband, who was abusive, and the church she loved barred her from taking Communion.

MARK ADAMO: I challenged my mother and said, even as you are sending your children off to Catholic school and off to Mass and you would love to come with us, but you were accepting this idea that you can't come because somehow you did something that ended up saving your and our lives, but somebody said, oh, gosh, sorry, you still colored outside the lines and therefore you're not welcome. Why aren't you angry? And so I got angry on her behalf.

MUSIKER: Adamo is gay and has a husband and that, too, colors his relationship with his faith. But he says he never imagined writing a New Testament opera until six years ago, when he stumbled on a New Yorker article about Mary Magdalene. She was a biblical figure often conflated with other Marys, including a reformed prostitute.

ADAMO: And it seemed to me that, in context, Mary Magdalene was the madwoman in the attic of the Christian tradition because she was associated with the body and with sexuality, and she was the opposite of the stainless virgin.

MUSIKER: The article also covered the 1945 discovery of the Gnostic Gospels, early Christian texts that in some cases contradict the traditional Gospels. They present a Mary who is Jesus' best pupil. Adamo introduces her singing lines borrowed from the Song of Songs, an Old Testament book long associated with Mary that uses sexual metaphors to express a spiritual longing for God.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA "THE GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE")

SASHA COOKE: (Singing) The nights I wasted searching, asking what (unintelligible) have you seen him? Have you seen the one I love?

ADAMO: My goal for this was to place sexuality, in general, and female sexuality in particular, to put that back into the center of the myth and see how much healing that could possibly affect.

MUSIKER: Composer Mark Adamo spent a year researching the story, and poured his learning into his libretto. It has 116 footnotes. But Adamo makes a leap of faith, if you will, when he has Mary and Jesus become lovers and then marry.

NATHAN GUNN: A lot of people get kind of hung up on her being his lover. They fall in love. It's a very human and beautiful thing.

MUSIKER: Nathan Gunn sings the role of Jesus, called Yeshua, his Hebrew name, in the opera.

GUNN: They teach each other things, too. It's kind of like the whole yin and yang symbol. You know, he's very yang. He's missing the yin and she's missing sort of the yang. They complement each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE")

COOKE: (Singing) (Unintelligible)

GUNN: (Singing) (unintelligible)

MUSIKER: The role of Mary is sung by Sasha Cooke.

COOKE: One thing I love, I tell people, oh, I'm doing Mary Magdalene. They say, Oh well, she could have been married to him. Why not? We don't know.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE GOSPEL OF MARY MAGDALENE")

COOKE: (Singing) And what his kisses tell me, what my body tells me is that God exists.

MUSIKER: "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" was commissioned by David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera. Gockley commissioned Adamo's first two operas when he ran Houston Grand Opera. So he was disappointed when he found no co-commissioners to help produce this $1.2 million world premiere. Gockley says other companies worried the story was too controversial.

DAVID GOCKLEY: And they've admitted that to me. But, you know, I knew when we took this on that it wasn't going to be everybody's cup of tea. And I've been proven right.

MUSIKER: Gockley says a local Catholic radio show did cancel an interview with Adamo. But there were no protests when he conferred with local priests and rabbis.

GOCKLEY: I'm kind of waiting for some kind of kerfuffle to happen around this, but yet the natives are quiet.

ADAMO: The theater is a safe place to talk about risky things.

MUSIKER: Composer Mark Adamo and Gockley expect a good number of journalists and many an opera director to be in the audience opening night. And Adamo hopes audiences will see that he's not trying to scorn the tradition.

ADAMO: Because I love this tradition. I would not have been able to write it the way I wrote it unless I thought the story would gain rather than lose nobility, credibility and passion. If everyone involved was a human being born into the same bodies that we are suffering through life with, and if they made momentous decisions guided only by moral intuition and the light they had to see by.

MUSIKER: Adamo he hopes other opera companies see the light and pick up "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" after it finishes its San Francisco run in July. For NPR News, I'm Cy Musiker in San Francisco.

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