The Gospel According to the Other Mary

Composed by
John Adams

Libretto by
Peter Sellars

Conducted by
Gustavo Dudamel

Directed by
Peter Sellars

Lighting Designer:
James F. Ingalls

Produced by:
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles, California

Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, California,
Barbican Center, London, UK,
Kultur und Kongresszentrum, Lucerne, Switzerland,
Salle Pleyel, Paris, France,
and Avery Fisher Hall, New York, New York


The Gospel According to the Other Mary by composer John Adams is a companion piece to El Nino, also collaboration between Peter Sellars. Though I did not design costumes for El Nino’s premiere in Paris in 2000, I did design El Nino when it was presented at Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2003.  I was therefore much honored to have the opportunity to design costumes for the premiere of The Gospel According to the Other Mary.

Peter Sellars has directed nearly one hundred productions; of these I designed fifty representing more than half of his directorial output. An important theme in my work with Peter Sellars has been the exploration of the role played by the sacred, the spiritual, and the religious in contemporary life. At a time when the avant-garde shrinks from touching anything that may have spiritual, let alone religious, over-tomes, Peter Sellars has ventured to stage religious pieces such as Bach’s Cantata No. 199, with themes of repentance, self-sacrifice, and devotion. Our rendering of Handels’ Theodora underscored the opera’s Christian themes. The production of Saint Francois in which the composer, Olivier Messiaen, sought “to describe, scene by scene, the infusion of grace into the soul of one of the greatest of all saints” was another example of the quest to include all aspects of human experience in our work. In all of these productions, costumes played a significant role in conveying the mystery of the unknowable, and the complexity of faith in the divine. The large chorus in Saint Francois represented a universal congregation in which many diverse cultures and existences were depicted in shades of grey, the color of Saint Francois’ original habit.

In Bach’s Cantata No. 199, the costume functioned also as a set. This was also true of El Nino and The Gospel According to the Other Mary, where singers and dancers performed on several platforms placed in the midst of the orchestra. It is a challenge to design costumes without being able to collaborate with a set designer. Sets, costume and lights, all visually complement each other. By tradition, Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestra members are dressed in black (as is customary for orchestras around the world). Nevertheless, the visible presence of orchestra members in The Gospel According to the Other Mary constricted my choices of color and texture considerably. The chorus, which was also costumed, was placed on a platform behind the orchestra. This allowed me more freedom.

The Gospel According to the Other Mary is a contemporary rendering of the Passion of Jesus, which had inspired artists for centuries. In the words of Peter Sellars, the goal of The Gospel According to the Other Mary was to set the Passion “in the eternal present, in the tradition of sacred art.” Unless one is completely shut off from reality, the story of Passion of Jesus is as relevant today as it has been for the past two thousand years. Violence, hate, betrayal, ignorance, inequity, suffering are as much part of our lives today as they were during the life of Jesus and his disciples.

The Gospel According to the Other Mary is, musically and thematically, about the people who loved Jesus and were loved by him: Mary Magdalene, her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus. For many years now I have been drawn to the story of Mary, Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. From my extensive reading about these two women I have learned how over the centuries the story of Mary Magdalene metamorphosed from a follower of Jesus to “reformed prostitute” follower of Jesus.   

Mary Magdalene is said to have witnessed both Jesus’ crucifixion and his Resurrection. She had a pivotal role among the followers of Jesus, and was referred to as “The Apostle to the Apostles” (by Saint Augustine). As Thomas May wrote in his essay about The Gospel According to the Other Mary, both Peter Sellars and John Adams conceived Mary Magdalene as “a woman of rich emotional complexity whose turbulent inner  life and hard past go hand in hand with her deep powers of intuition and volatile sensuality”.

My own interest in Mary Magdalene has centered on her role as a woman who lives with the consequences of the struggle for power, which inevitably ends in brutality. Life is given, life is taken. The whole is rendered into pieces. Yet suddenly, in the midst of what is called life’s suffering, there is the possibility of love and compassion, a resurrection.

Over the years I have collected paintings and photographs that capture Mary Magdalene’s witnessing. The images have ranged from ancient wall paintings to photographs that have captured our most recent failures to prevent horrors of visited on the so-called “refugees” and what we euphemistically call “collateral damage”. I showed Peter Sellars my file of images and he agreed that these were to be the source of our inspiration for the costumes.

Peter Sellars spoke about the importance of collaboration in a talk he gave at Emerson College in 2010. “I am a director. I am useless on my own…I can work with people who have talent. That’s the only talent I have.” My collaborative practice with Peter Sellars is fundamentally a search for communal union and unity with the work of art. This search requires humility and subjugation of the impulse to create something singular and individual, qualities not demanded of me to the same extent by other directors. Peter has always challenged me to make my designs indistinguishable from the whole.

The libretto created by Peter Sellars is based on Old and New Testament. The libretto includes text written by the Catholic social activist, Dorothy Day, whose life represents interesting parallel with the life of Mary Magdalene. There are also excerpts from writings of Primo Levi, Italian Jewish writer, Rosario Castellanos, Mexican poet and writer, June Jordan, African American poet, Hildegard von Bingen, 12th century German Abbess known for her mystical writings, and Ruben Dario, Nicaraguan poet. These eclectic choices of text also inspired my costumes which did not aim to represent a particular time in human history. My visual choices aimed to create an emotional response instead of serving as references to specific clothing.

For costumes of the principle singers, and dancers I limited the palette to blue and white. I chose blue because for centuries this color was used to depict the clothing of Mary, Mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. At the same time, it has been the color used for worker’s clothing. I utilized batik fabrics with abstract patterns. Each bolt of batik is unique even today, since majority is still made by hand. This uniqueness was to serve as a reference to the emotional depth and complexity of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus (the main characters of the opera). The dancers also wore costumes made of batik since their role was to serve as counter weights to each character but also, at times, as reflection, and memory. The three Narrators, who essentially tell the story enacted by Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, also wore batik. Each had a T-shirt with a circle of appliqued fabric. I based the appliques on ones created by women in 19th century Palestine, in Biblical land. At the end of the opera, the dancers appeared in batik costumes made of fabric in white and yellow. They personified spiritual transformation of their counterparts.

My designs The Gospel According to the Other Mary represent what I believe is some of my best work as a costume designer. I am glad of this since it is a very profound work of art and I am grateful to have been part of it.

Next production, Alcina.