By: Sara Hoover
A scene from the new opera will be performed Thursday, March 25, at 7:30 p.m. in the
U of M's Harris Concert Hall. Admission is free. Call 901/678-5400 for more information.
Dr. John Baur, like millions of others, picked up a copy of Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code, and was fascinated enough with the ideas presented to do his own research.
“It was intriguing because I had never, in my wildest dreams, considered the fact
that Jesus might have had a wife because that, obviously, is not part of your upbringing
in the Christian church. It was a very interesting idea. That’s what really hit me,”
said Baur, professor of music in the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music.
Baur decided to write Magdala, an opera inspired by fourth century Gnostic sources— even older than the 13th century
sources Dan Brown used.The opera tells the story of the conflict between Mary Magdalene
and Peter after the crucifixion of Christ over who should lead the church.
Dr. Baur’s opera, Magdala, draws from The Da Vinci Code. (Photo by Lissau)
“Some people say that it’s a radical notion that she was the wife of Jesus. To me,
the radical-ness is – not that she was the wife – that she was the heir apparent.
She was disciple number one. She understood what Jesus was talking about much better
than any of the other guys.They just didn’t get it. Peter especially didn’t quite
understand what (Jesus) was after, so he misinterpreted all kinds of things and essentially,
in my interpretation, led the church in the wrong direction.”
Baur, who is on sabbatical to finish the opera, was not interested in Mary Magdalene
before reading The DaVinci Code. "Actually we had so much misinformation about her
that I probably wouldn’t have been interested. But once I sorted out a lot of that,
all of a sudden, it became very intriguing.”
Magdala, Baur’s second full-length opera, is planned for two acts and will run a total of
two hours. His first full-length opera, The Promise, which chronicles the life and death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., was quite different
to create since plenty of sources were available on King — much in his own words.
The opposite is true of sources for Mary Magdalene.
“We have so little historical information, whereas with King there’s volumes and volumes,
even in King’s verbiage there are 15 books. (Mary Magdalene) is a little different.
The slight amount of information that is in the Gospels is very, very small. If you
only read the references that specifically say Mary Magdalene, there is very little
that is in the Bible and it doesn’t tell you who she is. The problem I have here is
whenever I have Mary Magdalene saying something, it’s all invented. I have to figure
out what she might have said under the circumstances and then do it.”
To give context to the conflict, Baur expanded the opera beyond Mary Magdalene and
Peter in the first century to include the reverberations this fallout had during the
third through the 13th centuries. Baur pulled in commentary from church fathers, cardinals,
bishops, popes and saints, who provided their thoughts on women within the church.
“I bring things from a variety of sources to bolster the argument because the church
went in this direction, they lost all of the female influence. That’s a very unhealthy
kind of thing to only have the male dominance. In the section where I bring in various
church fathers and their views on women, Mary Magdalene at one point says, ‘A womanless
church will create monstrosity.’ Their comments about women – especially the so-called
heretics who allow women to preach, prophesize – they have some very harsh comments
about that along with Mary (Magdalene).”
With the content based on religious texts, it is no surprise Baur is considering performing
the opera in churches. To accomplish that, Baur is writing the opera for a smaller
instrumental group, so the opera or parts of it can be performed in churches and then
written for a full orchestra so Magdala can be performed in the traditional operatic setting as well.
“I may write it initially for 15 instruments,” said Baur. “The reason for that is
if you have a small version like that, a chamber version, you could perform the entire
thing or parts of it in a church setting. So I’m not there yet, but I think that’s
probably where I’m going. I’ll have the original version for 15 instruments plus all
the voices, and then I will produce after that a larger version for a standard orchestra
so that it could be done in an operatic setting or a church setting and it would be
possible to do either one.”
Baur started the research two and a half years ago and expects to finish the writing
and composing by this summer.The opera is anticipated for the stage in either summer
2010 or summer 2011 at the Chautauqua Opera.
"Essentially this was a struggle between a patriarchal concept of the Christian church
and a completely inclusive concept which is what Mary (Magdalene) had but, more to
the point, that’s what Jesus had. Who knows how much we’ve lost both in terms of economic
and creative power. To a certain extent that’s the overriding story that I’m telling:
It wasn’t supposed to be that way and we blew it right at the beginning.”
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