LONDON (Reuters) - Peter Sellars's new opera opens with a drug addict banging her head against the bars of a prison cell in what the American director says conceptualises a woman's version of the Passion.
To be seen at the first full staging of composer John Adams's "The Gospel According to the Other Mary" at the English National Opera on Friday, it's an image of intense suffering.
But Sellars says the intent is to evoke labour pains - life-giving rather than death.
As the woman suffers, Sellars's libretto describes the pain of giving birth.
"It feels like the end of the world, but what you're actually doing is giving birth, so what looks like the worst times are in fact the beginning of the birth of a new era, and we always forget that," he told Reuters.
Sellars, 57, once considered the bad boy of opera for works like his 1980 setting of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in the underworld of New York's Harlem, has been involved in plenty of provocative productions in his time.
He did the original staging in 1991 of fellow American Adams's "The Death of Klinghoffer", based on a true story of a crippled Jewish man who was killed and thrown overboard from a cruise ship hijacked by Palestinians.
A revival in a new production last month brought out protesters at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City who claimed the work was anti-Semitic - which Sellars denies.
"The 'Klinghoffer' thing was absolutely quite cynically targeted by a group of people who couldn't care less about opera and didn't even know the piece," Sellars said, noting that in his view the protest had backfired.
"It's a cheap stab at censorship, and of course as always in the history of art anytime anyone tries that, all you do is create triple the publicity and so what was great was that a little opera is suddenly being discussed everywhere.
"So we have to thank them for their cupidity," he said with a laugh.
Sellars isn't expecting a repeat of a Klinghoffer-like row over "Gospel", although the piece departs from the usual Passion plays about the death of Jesus to emphasise the role of women, Mary Magdalene and her sister Martha, in Jesus's life.
It depicts the passion "in the eyes and words of the women who were there with Jesus and whose home he was staying in for the last two weeks of his life, so it became very personal and very private", Sellars said.
Like Klinghoffer, or one of Adams's other operas, "Nixon in China", "Gospel" is "another side of a story that obviously is quite public and it's one of those interesting things because it's what John always hopes for in his pieces", Sellars said.
"You already know the story, which is how most classic operas worked. You came in and the audience completely knew the story so therefore what was interesting was how it was being treated this time around, and what would be the points of reference - and that's marvellous."
(Editing by Louise Ireland)