Below is an essarticle (copyright 2013) I wrote for the latest edition of the online magazine Opera21 (which you should all read here) about John Adams and religion in his oratorios, and its influence on me.
Sometime in the spring of 2009, I heard El Niño for the first time. It was my first John Adams piece. I have no idea how I came upon the piece, but it quickly became a watershed moment in my musical life. I grew up Free Will Baptist, and I had no idea what to do with these strange new stories, ideas, and the music that illuminated them. It was like I stumbled on this new, unconventional Bible. But, despite this unfamiliarity, I was immediately transfixed. I asked for the DVD for Christmas, and watched it about 10 times in the next two weeks. Since then, I’ve probably seen it upwards of 75 times (at least 5 during each Advent, and multiple times throughout the rest of the year). I’ve half-joked before that I subscribe to the gospel of John Adams, which is probably more true than anyone could imagine.
When it was announced that Adams was writing a “sequel” to El Niño based on the Passion, it was like Christmas come early. I patiently waited for the premiere, devouring every bit of information we were given in interviews and videos. When Adams posted Peter Sellars’ synopsis on his blog, I went into overdrive doing research, trying to know as much as I could. I could probably quote verbatim most of the reviews of both premieres. The day they posted the broadcast of the premiere was another defining moment in my musical life. I was in New York City at the time, and I had woken up early so I could get in the rush line to see the Pippin revival, I conveniently had about a 4 hour wait, just enough to listen to the piece almost twice. As I sat there on the sidewalk of 45th street, I watched as people passed by with strange looks, wondering why someone was crying in the middle of a rush line. There was no good explanation for what I was feeling.
John Adams has often described himself as a “secular liberal,” and has always requested that interviewers not ask him about his religion or spirituality. When he was asked about this, he answered that he doesn’t “feel comfortable talking about [his faith] — no matter what I say, it comes out sounding wrong.”
Perhaps a more appropriate titled for El Niño would have been María, for the voice of the work is undeniably the Virgin’s. In addition to the soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, who both sing the words of Mary, Peter Sellar’s original staged version also featured a film running in time with the work, showing a version of the same story set in modern-day Los Angeles. These three Marys all join together to show different facets of a woman we thought we knew. It’s almost as if they are saying that all mothers are Mary. The miracle of childbirth isn’t reserved for Jesus, but every birth is just as miraculous.
The music Adams writes walks hand-in-hand with the story he tells: it is mystic, strangely beautiful, full of darkness and light. Close to the end of the first act, Adams sets a poem by Rosario Castellanos, “Se habla de Gabriel,” (not the angel, but Castellanos’ son):
As all guests do, my son got in my way
crowding my space
ruining my schedule
His body begged mine to give birth, to give way
to give him a place in the world
the time he would need for his story.
Mary is a human mother, taking care of a human child, who cries, needs changing, and doesn’t sleep through the night. Adams paints a beautiful picture of Mary and Jesus as every mother and child. He doesn’t focus on their holy or perfect status, but colors them in a new way. Adams sets this gorgeous text over a series of long string drones, with small ticks from the piccolo and harp, as if to count down the minutes until the child is born. In the final scene of act one, the words of Gabriela Mistral paint a metaphor for the childbirth, exclaiming:
A little girl
she caught and carries a star.
They try to take it away–
but how can she live without her star?
It didn’t simply fall–it didn’t.
It remained without her,
and now she runs without a body,
changed, transformed into ashes.
The road catches fire
and our braids burn,
and now we all receive her
because the entire Earth is burning.
Adams appropriately sets this against a gorgeous ecstatic backdrop of percussiveness, with the chorus proclaiming in Latin, “The tender shoot which is the Virgin’s son has opened Paradise.” Every birth opens paradise. Our lives are all connected to the Divine.
In The Gospel According to the Other Mary, John Adams set a text by Louise Erdrich (from her collection Baptism of Desire) about Mary Magdalene washing Jesus’ feet. It is full of beautiful eroticism. She claims that she will drive boys to smash empty bottles upon their brows. She will pull them right out of their skins. It’s almost a fetishistic ritual. The bowing at the feet, the washing with the hair. Adams surrounds this texts in music that makes you feel as if you could smell the perfume in the air. The orchestra feels as though it is writhing in its own skin until it settles in a strange pattern, when, suddenly, the chorus, filled with the smells of the perfume, possessively declare “Spiritus sanctus!” over and over, ritualistically. (In a similar fashion, Olivier Messiaen writes a movement called the Amen of Desire in his piece Visions de l’Amen, that supposedly represents the love and communion between God and man, but feels only 2 steps away from being the soundtrack to a very sophisticated porno.)
One of the most heartbreaking moments in the entire work (and maybe ever) is when the women are at the cross, weeping. Jesus looks down from the cross and sees his mother and tells her “Mother, behold thy son.” Unlike the Biblical story, he is not referring to John. He is asking His mother to look at him. To see what has happened. At this point, Adams references his own “Mary” music for El Niño and it is devastating. You can feel her heart break as she remembers the star, the shepherds, the wise men, the birth.
When Mary (Magdalene) finds the empty tomb, she immediately begins to weep. Here is perhaps the only man she has ever loved, and now she can’t even take care of his body. A man she thinks is the gardener walks up to her and asks “Woman, why weepest thou? Whom seekest thou?” Mary begs to be told where the body has been taken. The gardener, now revealed as Jesus, softly speaks her name through the voices of the countertenors. The music is strange, but refreshing. Adams doesn’t give us a Messiaen-like triumphal celebration of the Resurrection. Instead, he shows us the story through Mary’s eyes, what it was like to just be a friend of his.
Adams sets two more Erdrich texts (she is by far the work’s main voice), both having to do with Jesus. At the beginning of the second act, Jesus has a “fever dream,” where he chops down his cross, buries his parents alive, and flees to Damascus and Beirut to lead a revolution. It presents a more violent version of The Last Temptation of Christ. He forsakes the Divine plan for his own savage design. The music is just as savage as the story. The piano and electric bass lay down a menacing ostinato, while the chorus practically screams above it. The music is relentless and terrifying. It will not let up until Jesus has fled.
Later in the same act, Jesus, on the cross, screams out to his Father who had abandoned him in heaven,
I want no shelter. I deny
the whole configuration.
I hate the weight of earth.
I hate the sound of water.
Ash to ash you say, but I know different.
I will not stop burning.
Jesus has succumb to the human side of being fully human/fully divine. Up to this point in the scene, the music had been rather subdued, occasionally passing out, then stirring again. Shivers of pain and cold running through us. But at this point, a bass drum hit signals the final rush. Jesus engages in a yelling competition with the bass drum, and he wins. THe orchestra echoes his anger in the yells of brass instruments and the rumbles of bass instruments. Until finally, he completely gives up, the pain is too much. We immediately relate to him, because who among us wouldn’t be crying the same or worse?
Adams succeeds in these works by deepening these ancient characters and stories with modern day poetry and stories. (At the beginning of the work, Mary has adopted the story of Dorothy Day, where she is in jail for being a part of the women’s movement, and is tortured by the sound of a drug addict in withdrawals in the next cell.) He uses a similar idea in Doctor Atomic, but it is the exact opposite. He uses these ancient texts, from the Bhagavad Gita, and the less ancient John Donne and Muriel Rukeyser, to deepen Oppenheimer and his wife’s torture of being involved in the creation of the atomic bomb, a story we all think we know. John Adams focuses on the Others. He takes these stories we think we know and turns them on their heads, creating deeper characterizations and meanings that cause us to find ourselves in these stories we probably never could.
These ideas loom over me as I work on the libretto for a new piece I’m writing, based on the parable of the Prodigal Son. The work is based on the Other Son, the older brother of the prodigal. In a manner similar to Orozco’s Christ, the older son, angry at how the father has treated his brother upon his return, rises up against him and kills him, recalling Cain. Afterwards, he goes to his father, steals his portion of the inheritance, and goes into the city to squander it away, exactly like his brother had done. There can be no doubt that this piece would not have ever been planned without these “operatorios” and their enormous influence on me, musically and beyond.
I recommend these works more than any other works I love. They are two of my favorite pieces of all time. I can’t help but want everybody to hear these works and find themselves in the stories of the Marys, Martha, Jesus, and the other various characters in these beautiful stories. We are all the Others, and religious or not, these are human stories, just like the stories of our current day, and our personal stories.