The Jesus and Opera Chain

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We live in a unique time in which three actors head over to three separate theaters in Times Square and, eight times a week, assume the mantle of Jesus. The once-seedy area is home to concurrent runs of The Book of Mormon, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar.

Writing about the Godspell revival in the New York Times last November, Mark Oppenheimer notes that both Stephen Schwartz’s crunchy granola, everyman depiction of the Gospel of Matthew and Andrew Lloyd Weber’s contemporary glam-rock, media-blitz passion of the Christ “helped to mainstream a new kind of religious music, totally divorced from Gregorian chant, Bach’s liturgical music and the anodyne American hymnals.”

It’s the mention of Bach that intrigues me. While there are indeed plenty of classical works written about—and for—Jesus, it’s hard to conjure up an opera that depicts the world’s most famous carpenter. Even Handel’s Messiah, one of the most popular works in the Christmas season and an oratorio that has seen theatrical stagings, doesn’t feature Jesus as a personage. Was this endemic to religious conservatism over the centuries? And why, then, would Jesus be so frequently co-opted by musical theater but not opera in recent decades?

Opera traces its roots to Florentine composers enamored of a time that predates Jesus. For the first 20 years, works were exclusively devoted to the stories of classical antiquity (religion makes its first appearance in 1622 with Kapsberger’s Apotheosis sive Consecratio SS Ignati et Francisci Xaverii, which was written to celebrate the canonizations of Jesuit Saints Ignatius and Francis Xavier, more propaganda than proper opera). By definition, Jesus was never invited to the party. "Even though opera lived in the world of the aristocracy, it really was not necessarily a religiously-condoned activity,” explained Julian Wachner, the director of music and arts for Trinity Wall Street. “Certainly you’re not going to bring additional ire from the church, in the same way that you would never have a representation of Mohammed.”

What Wachner also points out is that, during the heyday of Baroque opera, stage works were prohibited during Lent. Such an edict gave way to the oratorio, a vocally dramatic loophole to the equation. As such, operatic composers prohibited from honing their craft for 40 days and 40 nights and supplementing this break with an Old-Testament–based oratorio work. The last thing many wanted to do upon returning to opera was look for another Biblical story. Opera went from depicting ancient myths up to the early works of Mozart, and then verged into nationalist and verismo works that were concerned with depicting real people. "Jesus had a hard time finding his way into that,” said Wachner.

Composer Mark Adamo, whose upcoming opera The Gospel According to Mary Magdalene is set to open next June at San Francisco Opera with Nathan Gunn singing Yeshua (the Hebraic name for Jesus), adds that for composers there are dramaturgical challenges with telling such a story. “I don’t know if there was a particular taboo of showing Jesus onstage, but I think that even as late as the 19th century, the assumption was that he was a divine figure; that you really were showing God,” he said. “The ordinary rules of the characterization of historical figures didn’t apply.” (Interestingly enough, Mary Magdalene is getting ample play in California; John Adams's oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary is to be performed in concert version by the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the end of this month.)

Prior to the mid-20th century, there were some attempts at giving Jesus the operatic treatment. Massenet features him in his 1872 oratorio, Marie-Magdeleine, based on Ernest Renan’s 1863 play La vie die Jésus. It perhaps was too much too soon, however, as, in its own time, scandalized audiences took the work to imply a physical relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene (heck, that’s a concept that still ruffles feathers today in the Dan Brown world). While Marie-Magdeleine is now a relative rarity, it influenced Tchaikovsky, who was so moved by Massenet’s retelling of the crucifixion that he wrote his own set of romances inspired by the work.

Adamo notes that Wagner, too, had looked at the life and teachings of Jesus as opera fodder before turning to Parsifal. And while he didn’t have the audacity to tackle the subject, Wagnerian essayist and composer Gabriel von Wayditch picked up the thread with 1918’s Jesus Before Herod. The Hungarian composer and librettist, with a work that reflects his wide-ranging interests in Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism and Platonic philosophy, may therefore go down as the first to write a true-to-form opera about Jesus, although the title character ironically never sings.

With the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, Wachner explains that there came an “attempt to not necessarily secularize the story [of Jesus] but to make it more accessible. So therefore it became with translations of the Bible stories that were more readily approachable and the Mass going from Latin to the vernacular. That all makes the Jesus story more everyday-person talk. So therefore it becomes something that you can touch in the creative realm.”

While the church was opening up, however, opera was beginning to close off in lieu of more popular forms of entertainment—especially in America. Film became a medium for all manner of crucifixion retellings (particularly suited for illustrating miracles and the resurrection), from Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew to Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth to Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. Aptly enough, both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar also got the celluloid treatment testaments to two musicals that combined a more welcoming face of the church and its teachings with the music embraced by 70's youth culture. Jesus Christ Superstar’s sung-through nature has also earned it the moniker of a rock-opera.

In fact, it’s the music that is the most iconoclastic aspect of Godspell and Superstar. “The conception of what Jesus actually says is not all that controversial,” said Adamo, referring to Jesus Christ Superstar. "What’s new is stirring in the idea that he is a media superstar—and the electric guitars.”

For Adamo, depicting Jesus in his new work wasn’t daunting, rather it was a matter of artistic importance. Adamo’s meticulous libretto includes, by the composer’s own estimate, 107 footnotes bridging together textual evidence with dramatic intent. In a way, it goes against the idea Adamo postulates of reading the New Testament for metaphor rather than narrative or character.

“It wasn’t really a fear of putting him onstage," he said. "It was the fear of whether there would be enough in the text I was going to research to make the character dramatically vital and recognizable as Jesus, and also come from a conception that has some textual and historical integrity." He adds: "My feeling is that the Christian story becomes more—rather than less—powerful if we look at it as something that begins in history with literary embroidery.”

Weigh in: Should there be more operas based on the story of Jesus? Who would you want to see compose such a work? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.