San Francisco Opera is getting ready to start the conversation about what could prove to be its most controversial offering in years -- perhaps decades. On Sunday night in the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco's Kanbar Hall, the two principals and the composer/librettist of a brand-new opera that will roll out at War Memorial Opera House on June 19 will be on a panel to discuss its origins and perform some musical excerpts. The composer is New York's Mark Adamo, the performers are American baritone Nathan Gunn and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, and the subject at hand is one of the New Testament's most substantial female figures.

J. Henry FairBaritone Nathan Gunn is Yeshua (Jesus) and soprano Sasha Cooke is Mary Magdalene in Mark Adamo’s new opera based on the relationship of
J. Henry Fair Baritone Nathan Gunn is Yeshua (Jesus) and soprano Sasha Cooke is Mary Magdalene in Mark Adamo's new opera based on the relationship of the biblical characters. ( J Henry Fair )

"The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," the third work S.F. Opera general director David Gockley has commissioned from Adamo, has been five years in the making and culls its content not just from the Bible, but also from the ancient Gnostic texts unearthed in Egypt in the mid-20th century. It's safe to say that the woman who has been misinterpreted, misidentified and mired in ill repute down through the ages is likely to emerge in a whole new light under Adamo's reimagining of her.

Gockley, who as director of Houston Grand Opera had commissioned both "Little Women" and "Lysistrata, or the Nude Goddess" from Adamo in 1998 and 2005, acknowledged when announcing "Magdalene" last year that there would be some risk to the undertaking. "It's a toughie," he admitted at the time. "But I think it's a story worth telling. She is a character worth redeeming. And after what the Catholic Church has done to her over the years, she deserves a good turn."


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Cooke, who will be inhabiting the persona of Magdalene, is a newcomer to San Francisco Opera, but is well-known at the San Francisco Symphony, where she was radiant in their 2009 production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "Iolanthe" and where she has just finished a turn as a soloist in Beethoven's "Missa solemnis." Gunn, who will be playing Yeshua (Jesus), is a very familiar figure at San Francisco Opera, having garnered rave reviews as Figaro in "The Barber of Seville," Pagageno the bird-catcher in Mozart's "The Magic Flute" and the title character in Benjamin Britten's "Billy Budd."

The panel discussion with Adamo, Gunn and Cooke will be moderated by S.F. Opera's director of musical administration Clifford Cranna. It takes place at 7 p.m. at Kanbar Hall, 3200 California St., San Francisco. Tickets, $22-$25, are at 415-292-1233 or www.jccsf.org. For more information on "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene," go to www.sfopera.com.

JUST THE MUSICIANS: San Francisco Opera's summer productions -- Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann," Mozart's "Così fan tutte" and the above-mentioned "The Gospel of Mary Magdalene" -- don't get underway for another month, but Music Director Nicola Luisotti is keeping his orchestra in shape. It was one of the Italian maestro's goals, when taking over his post in 2009, to raise the profile of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, and he has done that by taking his players out of War Memorial and presenting them in concert without all those distracting singers and sumptuous sets.

Luisotti and the orchestra, as they did last year, will appear at 8 p.m. Friday night at UC Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall, a co-presentation with Cal Performances. Their program this time is unusual in that, in addition to a repertoire staple, the Brahms Symphony No. 3, they will present a relatively unknown symphonic work by a famed opera composer and a similarly obscure piano concerto by an Italian composer most renowned for his movie scores. The former is the "Capriccio Sinfonico" by Giacomo Puccini, written as a sort of a thesis when the composer was a student at the Milan Conservatory. It dates to 1883, before Puccini wrote an operatic note, but close listeners will detect harbingers of "La Boheme" in it almost four minutes into the composition. The other work is the Piano Concerto in C, written by filmmaker Federico Fellini's favored collaborator, Nino Rota, composer of some 150 film scores, many of them quite high profile, including his Oscar-winning work for Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather," which ranks fifth on the American Film Institute's list of the all-time greatest movie scores.

Soloist for the Rota work will be Italian pianist Giuseppe Albanese, making his Northern California debut here; he has performed it in concert previously in Rome and in Naples.

Tickets for the concert, at 8 p.m. Friday in Zellerbach Hall, are $20-$80, available at 415-864-3330, www.sfopera.com, 510-642-9988 or www.calperformances.org.

Contact Sue Gilmore at sgilmore@bayareanewsgroup.com.