Madison Opera enters new territory with 'Dead Man Walking'

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Dead Man Walking is quite unlike anything Madison Opera has done, and yet no narrative better addresses the violence, remorse and redemption that are so familiar in grand opera.

The narrative is based on the story of Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and leading advocate for abolishing the death penalty. The opera paints a vivid picture of the last days of Joseph DeRocher as he awaits execution in Louisiana’s Angola Prison for the rape and murder of a young couple. The crime is presented in vivid detail during the opera’s prologue.

DeRocher (baritone Michael Mayes) is a composite character of the men Sister Helen (mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack) served as spiritual adviser before their executions. His fate is familiar to the activist nun, who has written several books about the death penalty.

“I want the last thing you see in this world to be the face of love,” she tells DeRocher as he is led away — a “dead man walking” to his own execution. It’s far too late to save DeRocher’s mortal life, but thanks to Sister Helen’s work, there may still be hope for his spiritual redemption.

The opera by composer Jake Heggie and out librettist/playwright Terrence McNally premiered in 2000 at the San Francisco Opera. Madison Opera general director Kathryn Smith first saw the New York City Opera’s production when she was working with the Metropolitan Opera in 2002.

“It blew me away with its incredible music, its theatrical intensity and the clear sense that this was a truly great American opera,” Smith said. “I discovered that (Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro) John DeMain had been the conductor of that (New York) performance and had been instrumental in the first post-premiere productions of the opera.  We have been working toward producing it here ever since.”

Dead Man Walking was the first opera by composer and pianist Heggie, best known for writing art songs performed by Renée Fleming, Frederica von Stade, Patti Lupone, Audra McDonald and other vocal luminaries. It also was the first foray into opera for McNally, who penned the plays Corpus Christi, The Ritz, Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion and other acclaimed works. Sister Helen’s account was the perfect point of entry for the Tony Award-winning playwright.

“I wanted to write an opera based on issues — moral, political and social — that would engage a contemporary audience,” McNally said. “I also wanted two strong central characters. Most contemporary operas are chastised for insufficiently compelling or interesting librettos. Sister Helen’s life and struggles for saving the life of condemned people had all the elements I was looking for.”

Like the Oscar-winning 1995 film version starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, McNally’s libretto is based on Prejean’s book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty. But the opera is not a musical version of the film, McNally stresses. The murderer DeRocher and his mother are McNally’s creations.

Prejean’s one request of McNally and Heggie was that her tale be presented as one of redemption. Accommodating her wishes was easy to do, McNally says.

“Sister Helen is proof that you can be a devout member of a religious belief system and an activist for reform with a huge and loving heart,” McNally says. “She is one of my role models. Jake and I are very proud that she is proud of the opera we have made of her and her life’s work.”

McNally and Heggie had numerous long discussions about the project before work commenced, as much to address Prejean’s request as to chart their own creative courses.

“I felt deeply inspired and moved by the story right away,” Heggie said. “It felt timely and timeless — very American but universal — and had the essential elements of a grand opera, with the kind of emotion and drama that could fill an opera house.”

McNally’s libretto demanded a variety of American music styles, including jazz, folk, pop, rock and gospel, Heggie said. The story takes place in the South, which has its own “musical landscape,” according to the composer. But it was reflecting the emotional themes of the work that Heggie found most difficult.

“I was hugely challenged by the conflicts in this piece, and the enormity of the grief on all sides,” Heggie said. “All of the themes I explore spring from complex human emotions inspired by love, loss, grief, joy, outrage, a quest for vengeance, a search for forgiveness and redemption. There are so many heightened emotions in this story, and it was important to honor each character and to love them for who they are.” 

The enormity of the crime, as well as the social issues surrounding capital punishment, compound the emotions at its heart. The questions raised by the story are not easy, particularly questions surrounding the death penalty, McNally said.

“I have answers to those questions, but I prefer the audience to answer them for themselves,” says McNally. “This is not a lecture opera, it’s a human drama and we want people to think and feel.”

“Issues of crime, punishment, redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness are in the headlines every day,” Smith said. “Whatever one’s religious or political beliefs, the very true emotions of everyone in the piece will move you.”

Editor's Note: Please see the full calendar of events planned in Madison surrounding the production of Dead Man Walking, including an appearance by Sr. Helen Prejean.

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