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Dead Man Walking as Opera a Major Success

Jake Heggie: Dead Man Walking

Sister Helen Prejean: Kristine Jepson, soprano
Joseph De Rocher: John Packard, baritone
Mrs. De Rocher: Frederica von Stade, mezzo-sporano
Warden George Benton: Charles Austin, bass
Sister Rose: Donita Volkwijn, soporano
Opera Pacific Orchestra
John DeMain, conductor


The week before last in Orange County, California, Maestro John DeMain, music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and artistic adviser to the Madison Opera as well as artistic director of Opera Pacific, conducted an amazing new American opera based on the book Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean. Composed by 40-year-old Jake Heggie to a libretto by the renowned playwright Terrence McNally, the opera was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera and had its world premiere there in October, 2000. Dead Man Walking is already being hailed as a major achievement by the critics, and based on the performance I saw April 20th, the work certainly deserves the highest praise.

Backstage immediately afterwards, DeMain speculated whether this dramatic, lyrical new piece might play here in Madison after the new Overture Center opens. "It's a real opera," he said, "with great arias and ensembles, a terrific score, gripping drama, heightened emotions, and a fully modern theme. I would love to do it in Madison." Hearing this underscored once again how Madison's cultural scene is vitalized and enriched by DeMain's work elsewhere.

In contrast to most other modern operas, Dead Man Walking is set in our own times, centrally involved with the controversial issue of capital punishment. Sister Prejean's book (her name is pronounced the French way: "pray-ZHAWN") recounts her intensely moving experiences as the spiritual counselor to two men who were ultimately executed at the state prison in Angola, Louisiana. The crimes were incredibly brutal, involving abduction, rape and murder by stabbing and shooting. In each case there were two assailants. At their trials one was sentenced to death, the other to life imprisonment. It falls to Prejean first to try to prevent the executions, then to prepare the murderers for their inevitable death at the hands of the government, in the process confronting her with soul-searching doubt about her faith and the situations she's caught up in.

As in the award-winning 1995 movie of the same title starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, the opera's doomed prisoner is a composite of the two real-life characters: emotionally repressed, extremely violent, cold-blooded killers. I asked Heggie about this elision and about the decision, as was also the case in the film, to take an ambiguous position about the death penalty, rather than incorporating the book's very strong stand against capital punishment. "Though this story has a backdrop of these very difficult social issues, it is a story about the transformative, redemptive power of love," he said. He and McNally felt from the first it would take too long to explore both murderers and Sister Prejean's involvement with them: "The only reasonable way to tell it, for us, was to focus on a single case, a single relationship, a single crime."

All this might seem too grim, too dark, too intense for a successful music-theatrical work. As I read the book, watched the film again and listened to the CDs of the San Francisco premiere before attending the Opera Pacific performance, I somewhat dreaded the prospect of seeing this story live, for it starts with violent rape and murder and ends with the execution, both unflinchingly shown onstage. It was indeed overwhelming; I doubt there was a dry eye in the house as the murderer's mother pleads for her son's life before the Pardon Board and again as she visits him on death row for the last time before he is killed. Equally heart-rending is the suffering of the victims' parents for the loss of their children.

Emotionally surcharged drama, including death, lies at the heart of many operas, including perennial favorites like Verdi's Rigoletto or Puccini's Madama Butterfly. What makes it work is the music, both vocal and orchestral, as well as the overall production. This was certainly the case for Dead Man Walking. Heggie's score is loaded with superb music: combining pop- and folk-music elements with standard classical symphonic and vocal styles, it achieves an amazingly accessible, lyrical intensity.

Kristine Jepson brought believable fervor to her role as Sister Prejean and displayed a strong, flexible, entirely beautiful voice. Equally impressive was Frederica von Stade as Mrs. De Rocher, the murderer's mother, a role she created for the world premiere. Also recreating his original role was John Packard as Joseph De Rocher, the murderer. One might have wanted a greater range of colors in his voice, but Packard's acting was all anyone could ask for. As the prison warden George Benton, Charles Austin (well known to Madison audiences from his many appearances with the Madison Opera) was in great voice and skillfully managed the difficult task of being both officious and human.

Every aspect of the production -- direction, sets, lighting and costumes -- made a strong contribution to winning theater. Indeed, this production is new, more flexible and lighter in weight than the original San Francisco one. It was developed by Opera Pacific in partnership with six other companies, in the process guaranteeing Heggie and McNally an unprecedented number of performances for a new opera, at least 43 -- that must be a record -- plus others as yet unannounced. Asked about this sudden popularity, Heggie commented, "The story and music have a lot to say about where we are as a people here in 21st-century America. I think that's pretty engaging for an audience. You see people just like you, experiencing huge emotions."

Not least of the strong elements of Dead Man Walking is DeMain, who will conduct the work this September at its New York City Opera premiere. Heggie is lavish in his praise: "I found John DeMain to be an incredibly insightful, respectful and diligent collaborator. I think he's one of the great American conductors and am completely honored to have him as a champion for my work." Dead Man Walking may well be the most significant new musical dramatic work since Bernstein's West Side Story. I fervently hope it's not long before we have an opportunity to see it here in Madison.

Wisconsin State Journal, April, 2002
Copyright 2002 Jess Anderson

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