The Gospel According to the Other Mary

A Passion oratorio in two acts (2012)

Mary red


Scenes One and Two

Howling and shrieks of pain of a woman in withdrawal from a drug addiction in the jail cell next to Mary’s rend the night. The woman beats her head on the metal bars, now lashing out, then weeping. Mary cannot blot out the sound of human suffering. The chorus sings the words of the prophet Isaiah. “Howl ye; for the day of the Lord is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty… and they shall be afraid: pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth…”

Mary and her sister Martha have opened a house of hospitality for homeless and unemployed women which survives on small donations and small miracles. They have welcomed Jesus into their family and he stays with them when he comes to Bethany. Martha is concerned that Mary does not help out more with the work in the house and asks Jesus to have a word with her. Jesus tells Martha that Mary has chosen a path that cannot be taken away from her. She is struggling to learn how to pray.Kiss

The air is gently radiant and alive – women’s voices sing “On that day of love I descended to the earth: it moved like a bird crucified in flight and smelled of damp herbs, of loosened hair, of a body transfixed by the noonday sun… Through my skin the ages ran: light was made, the sky was rent and found eternal ecstasy near the sea. The world was the perpetual shape of awe…”

Scene Three

Mary and Martha’s brother, Lazarus, is diagnosed with a terminal illness. The sisters ask Jesus to come back to Bethany to heal their brother, but Jesus deliberately lingers for a few days in another city and lets Lazarus die in Bethany. This sickness, Jesus says, “is not unto death, but for the glory of God.”

The orchestra depicts the agony and the anguish of Lazarus’ last hours. In a neighborhood where too many mothers bury their sons and daughters and too many women live with the pointless, needless and violent loss of a generation of young men, Mary’s grief is acute and numbing. She completely withdraws into herself, and into her grief.

Jesus arrives four days after Lazarus is buried. Martha greets him reproachfully: “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Mary refuses to come out of her room (“In My Own Quietly Explosive Here”).

Martha and Jesus enter Mary ‘s room quietly. Jesus sees and touches the wounds on Mary’s left arm; she has tried to commit suicide. Jesus weeps. Mary tells him “I love You to my farthest limits; to the trembling tips of my fingers, the vibrating ends of my hair.”

They go to Lazarus’ grave. It is a cave with a stone rolled over its mouth. Jesus asks the people nearby to take away the stone. The grave reeks with a terrible stench. Jesus withdraws to pray. Mary panics. “Where are you? Why do you turn your face from mine?” She is on the steep slope of another breakdown in the face of the gaping door of her brother’s grave, and the back of a man who has given new meaning to her life.

Jesus calls loudly for Lazarus to step out of the tomb. Slowly, strangely, Lazarus emerges from the cave, his body and face still wrapped in linen. Jesus asks people to free Lazarus, to cut him loose, to let him breathe.

Like a delicate and iridescent spring shower, the words of the prophet Isaiah hover in the air: “Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation…as the earth bringeth forth her bud, and as the garden causeth the things that are sown in it to spring forth…”

Scene Four

Two weeks later, and six days before Passover, Jesus returns to Bethany for supper with Mary, Martha, and the resurrected Lazarus. A small crowd has gathered to see Jesus and the man who came back from the dead. Martha is serving, and suddenly Lazarus rises from the table, tongue freed and spirit flying, and begins to sing with wave after wave of ecstatic life force.Russell and Mary

Mary unwraps expensive perfumed oil and massages Jesus’ feet, wiping his feet with her hair, and filling the room with rich, intoxicating aroma. The extravagance, tenderness, sensuality, and humility of her gesture contrast sharply with her past lives as a hard woman living with hard men. Her furious words cut to the hurt that she still carries with her:

“I’m walking out
my face a dustpan
my body stiff as a new broom
I will drive boys
to smash empty bottles on their brows”
“It is the old way that girls
get even with their fathers—
by wrecking their bodies on other men.”

In the same moment, a chorus mystically fills the room with the fragrance of the Spirit that gives all life, cleanses all beings from impurity, washes away all guilt, salves all wounds, arousing all, resurrecting all.

There is grumbling from young workers in the house that Mary has spent precious money on luxury goods that could have been used to feed the poor. Jesus answers that the poor will always be with us, make demands on our conscience and test our generosity. He tells everyone that he will soon leave this world. Mary is preparing his body for burial.

Scene five

Martha sings of how we are put on earth that we might learn to bear the beams of love, but instead can’t bear the intensity of these beams and do everything to shield ourselves from them. She weeps over the hardness of her own heart, her “tremendous…inexcusable incapacity to love.”

This year, the Passover meal will be modest, but the humanity of the guests is rich. Jesus looks with tenderness and gratitude on the small group of people who will share his last days on earth. How is this night different from all other nights? The Passover ritual reaches across the centuries to affirm a continuum of suffering, sacrifice, solidarity, and hope. “This year in fear and shame, next year in virtue and justice.”



In a searing night vision, Jesus tears himself from his cross, chops it down with an axe, and blazing with the phosphorescent colors of the New World, demolishes all hierarchies. He buries his parents alive, and sets out for Beirut and for Damascus, where restless and hungry crowds are gathering in the streets demanding revolution.

Scene One

Mary and Martha are awakened by pounding on the door and the voices of police. Jesus, already knowing what the next days will bring, gives himself up to the authorities and asks them to leave the rest of his companions alone. Some community members are already violently resisting arrest; one of them cuts off the right ear of a cop with a knife. Jesus warns that those who take up the sword shall perish with the sword. Words of the prophet Isaiah echo above the street noise: “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain… In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength…” Jesus lifts the ear from the ground and restores it, healing the man.

Scene Two

Arrests continue throughout the day. The group of women is specifically targeted and subjected to brutal tactics. They try to reason with the police; they are not intimidated, they hold their ground. This fearless challenge by women inflames the rage of their attackers and increases the levels of violence.

Dorothy Day

That night, Martha reflects on the day’s events – up before dawn, the picketing, the group meetings, the absurd charges brought against them as they demonstrated for the rights, fair wages and inviolable humanity of the poorest workers in the state. While César Chávez and Dolores Huerta negotiate with the Teamsters and Jesus is arraigned before Pilate, the women, mostly Mexicans, hold prayer vigils until dawn. Back in prison again, surrounded by angry guards, with the bitter taste of steel and concrete in their mouths, the women pray: “Jesus, incomparable forgiver of trespasses, hear me; Sower of wheat, give me the tender bread of your hosts; give me, in the face of furious hell, a lustral grace from rages and lusts… that upon dying I will find the light of a new day and then will hear my “Rise up and walk!”

Scene Three

The orchestra paints the thick gray dawn over Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull.” The hounded Jesus drags the cross, scraping the pavement, moving through a harrowing admixture of chaos, bloodlust, chatter, and dread, while the women follow weeping. “Weep not for me, but weep for yourselves and your children” he tells them. “Behold, the days are coming, in which they shall say, blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare…”

Jesus is nailed to the cross and hoisted. Hanging in the heavy air, sheets of pain racking his being, he looks down to see Mary at the foot of the cross. Then he sees Mary, his mother. He looks into her eyes and says “Mother, behold thy son.”

Scene Four

The sky darkens and it begins to rain. Night falls, and Jesus is still hanging on the cross. The rain dissolves into tears. His broken body struggles; his strength becomes “a mortal strength, subject to love.” The Other Mary stays with him through the night, sharing his agony. Martha and Lazarus are at her side. The orchestra shivers, passes out and stirs again across the millennia and the minutes of time on the cross. A clarinet solo pierces the deepening darkness. Finally Jesus roars at the Father who abandoned him. “Ash to ash, you say, but I know different. I will not stop burning.”

Scene Five

The women take Jesus’ body to a fresh grave in a nearby garden. They perfume the corpse with ointments and spices and bind it with linen. With the quiet consolation of lingering memories, they are left to gently handle the weight of the dead flesh, and the weight of their grief, as they lower the body into the tomb. An immense, serene, otherworldly brass chorale underscores the failure of this man whom they loved so deeply and whom they thought would change the world.

The stillness of the night is broken by the trill of frogs.

Three days later, after finally succumbing to her first deep sleep, Mary is awake before dawn. It is spring. The tiny frogs pull their strange new bodies out of suck holes, “each in a silver bubble that breaks on the water’s surface to one clear unceasing note of need.” She stumbles out of bed and goes to the edge of the pond to see their bodies “transformed at last, and then consumed in a rush of music.”

Scene Six

It is still dark when Mary decides to go back to Jesus’ tomb. She arrives with Martha in silence at the mouth of the cave in the cold night air. As the sun rises, the ground shifts under their feet. An earthquake. The rock splits. Security guards black out. The tomb is empty—or are those angels in blinding white asking her why she is crying?

Mary stands weeping and shuddering in front of the open grave, desperately looking for Jesus. A gardener working on the grounds crew comforts her. He asks why she is crying, whom she is looking for. She looks up and recognizes that the gardener is Jesus. She understands.

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John Adams’s The Other Mary

“Sacred Dissonance

by Alex Ross

When composers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries entered the shadow realm of dissonance, they often went in quest of emotional extremes. So it was with Strauss’s “Salome,” Schoenberg’s “Erwartung,” Berg’s “Wozzeck,” and other landmarks of modernism. Yet the progression toward atonality also had a mystical aspect: these uncanny new chords could serve as esoteric icons, emblems of the sacred. Such is the import of certain late works of Liszt, of Scriabin’s music of divine ecstasy, of the occultist pieces that Satie wrote for the Rosicrucian theatre of Joséphin Péladan. Schoenberg’s atonal language found its ultimate purpose in the opening measures of his opera “Moses und Aron,” where hexachords represent God speaking through the burning bush. Twentieth-century composers went on to create a staggering corpus of sacred music, arguably eclipsing the production of the preceding century. Even secular-minded artists like György Ligeti and Morton Feldman wrote works of a spiritual nature, perhaps because their chosen language drew them toward the unsayable.

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Music by John Adams; Libretto compiled by Peter Sellars from Biblical sources and original texts by Dorothy Day, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Louise Erdrich and Primo Levi. First performance May 31, 2012, Disney Hall, Los Angeles with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Los Angeles Master Chorale, Grant Gershon, director. Sound design by Mark Grey. Original cast: Kelley O’Connor (Mary); Tamara Mumford (Martha); Russell Thomas (Lazarus); Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings & Nathan Medley, countertenors.

Commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic with generous support from Lenore and Bernard Greenberg; the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, the Barbican, London; the Lucerne Festival; Cité de la Musique-Salle Pleyel (Paris); the NTR ZaterdagMatinee, Radio 4’s concert series in the Concertgebouw (Amsterdam).

Score dedication: for Emily, a seeker

Performance information and materials available from Boosey & Hawkes, Inc.


piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, 3 percussionists playing snare drum, very low bass drum, timbale, low tom-toms, tuned gongs, chimes, almglocken, glockenspiel, large tam-tam, medium tam-tam, small tam-tam, cimbalom, bass guitar, piano, harp, strings

SATB chorus


3 countertenors

Duration: approximately 2.5 hours


Other Mary cov er

Original cast recording, LA Philharmonic, LA Master Chorale, Gustavo Dudamel