Music critic and journalist
     Cheryl North :: Articles

Feature article in the British publication, Opera Now, 2000

Capital punishment is a highly charged issue in the US. Now opera is entering the debate with the forthcoming world premiere of Dead Man Walking at San Francisco Opera. Cheryl Bonham-North reports

Operas have been written about virtually every aspect of human experience. While libretti fairly brim with cases of mistaken identity, romance, slapstick comedy, and all manner of noble quests, they also spill over into incidents of fratricide, patricide, suicide and murder, not to mention incest, rape - and execution. So San Francisco Opera's upcoming world premiere of Dead Man Walking, a story that explores the controversial and emotive moral issues surrounding capital punishment culminating in the execution of a rapist-murderer, isn't as far-fetched a subject for an opera as some might think.

Dead Man Walking, scheduled to open in San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House on 7 October, is a grim, moving autobiographical story based on a book by Sister Helen Prejean CSJ, a Roman Catholic nun who has spent her life pursuing her vocation in her home state of Louisiana. She wrote Dead Man Walking after serving, in 1982, as a spiritual counsellor for Patrick Sonnier, a convicted rapist-killer of two teenagers, who was sentenced to die in the electric chair at Louisiana's Angola State Prison. Published in 1993, the book earned numerous awards. It was on The New York Times' best-seller list for 31 weeks, graduated to the international best-seller list, and has been translated into eight different languages.

Dead Man Walking was released as a film in 1996. It starred Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as the inmate on death row, renamed Matt Poncelet for the purposes of the movie. Tim Robbins wrote the screenplay and directed the film, which subsequently received Oscar nominations for best actor, best actress, best song, and best director - Sarandon won the best actress award. Many who saw the movie considered it one of the more emotional, even traumatic, experiences of their lives - I certainly did.

How could a subject as charged as capital punishment possibly be addressed in an opera? I asked Jake Heggie, the composer of Dead Man Walking: "I cried a lot!" admitted 39-year-old Heggie. "But then I began to see it not just as a story about the death penalty in our country, but rather, as a journey taken by the two main characters and their injured families - the families of the victims as well as those of the victimiser. It's neither a documentary nor a musical version of the movie. It's contemporary, but timeless; very American, yet universal. It deals with something that every country and every civilisation has had to deal with since time began: the question of who decides who lives and who dies. It's also about redemption versus damnation, and then, the really big one - forgiveness. That [forgiveness] is the big journey in life - the one thing that will give a person peace of mind."

It took many months for Heggie, librettist Terrence McNally, and Lotfi Mansouri, San Francisco Opera's General Manager, to agree on Dead Man Walking as a subject for opera. The idea of commissioning Heggie to write a new opera actually had its genesis in Mansouri's mind back in 1997. Mansouri considered the young composer to have what he describes as "an incredible talent for expressing the human condition through, song and voice" and as a musician who "really understands how the voice works." He also admires McNally as "one of the finest playwrights of our time" and had long wanted him to write an opera libretto. Mansouri tapped into the resources of Chase Manhattan Private Bank to create an ongoing Chase Composer-in-Residence Program, designating Heggie the first recipient. The purpose of the program, Mansouri says, is "to provide a wide variety of new works of every scale - at the rate of one new opera per year" His hopes are "that operas written by future composers-in-residence will be produced for the main stage of San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House as well as for other venues, depending on the size and scope of the individual compositions."

Through his Pacific Visions Program, which he established in 1992, Mansouri was the catalyst for commissioning Andre Previn as composer and Philip Littell as librettist for A Streetcar Named Desire, based on the Tennessee Williams stage play, and Conrad Susa and Philip Littell to team up to write music and libretto for Les Liasons Dangereuses, based on the 18th-century novel by Choderlos de Laclos. Similarly, Mansouri was instrumental in commissioning Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie to create an opera based on the life and death of the San Francisco politician and gay rights advocate, Harvey Milk, a joint endeavour with the Houston Grand Opera and the New York City Opera.

The choice of Sister Helen Prejean's Dead Man Walking as the subject for this latest commission, was not Mansouri's, but rather, McNally's. According to Heggie, when Mansouri initially approached him with the idea of writing an opera, the General Director suggested a comedy! After Heggie and McNally were introduced, they spent about nine fruitless months brainstorming through possible subjects for their opera. Then, while on a plane en route to yet another meeting with Heggie, McNally wrote out a list of the subjects they were considering. He had recently read Sister Helen's book, and included it along with his other potential subjects. By the time his flight ended, he had crossed out every title on his list except Dead Man Walking. When McNally first told Heggie that he hoped to base the opera on Dead Man Walking, Heggie remembers that "all the hairs on my body seemed to stand on end. I knew the choice was inspired."

When I approached McNally, he was working with composer-lyricist David Yazbek touching up last-minute details for the New York opening of their new musical play, The Full Monty. He took time out to share his thoughts about Dead Man Walking with me via e-mail. "I knew for a long time, that if I were ever going to write a full-length opera, I would be hoping to find a contemporary story that concerned itself with people I could care about who were attempting to deal with a difficult moment in their lives," he wrote. He noted that these were pretty much the same criteria he used when trying to come up with an original idea for a play, and added, "Obviously, DMW met these criteria."

So why didn't he write a play based on Sister Helen's book instead of an opera? He explained that, given the magnitude of the subject matter, it seemed more suited to an opera than a play. "I think music adds a dimension to a story that words can only suggest. In this case, the emotions are so big, complex and mysterious, music can amplify them, allow them to grow. It's a big story, it's inherently operatic, it's about a subject we all think about, even if we pretend our minds are 100 per cent made up on the order. I think the subject-matter reaches us in a very fundamental place."

After the decision on DMW was finalised with Mansouri and Sister Helen, McNally took Jake Heggie to his house in Key West, Florida, to begin work. Although they had talked about the plot for several months, McNally spun out the libretto for Act I in about four days. He told Heggie that he would initially approach it as though he were writing a play and hope that it inspired music. It did.

"It was my job to translate that kind of emotion and searing conflict into music," Heggie said - and after a long hesitation, added, "That's why I was in tears so much of the time during its composition." Heggie found McNally to be a wonderful collaborator. "He told me to let the music take over if I came across something in the libretto that didn't quite fit. Soon, the libretto took shape because the music took us there."

For Heggie, working on the opera was very much a give-and-take creative process. He always "tried to get into the head of the person speaking" and then, as he did so, he could write the sort of melodic line which would fit each character and their mood. Heggie's compositional style is refreshingly lyrical, since he believes that the human voice is built to sing long, lyric lines. He has an almost Schubertian affinity for and facility with song and his compositions, as a result, have attracted some of the world's best singers, many of whom have either included Heggie selections in their recitals or on their recordings. Among these are Frederick von Stade, Brian Asawa, Renee Fleming, Earle Patriarco, and more. Soprano Jennifer Larmore writes in the programme notes of her latest CD, "... it's amazing how he [Heggie] assumes the identity of his texts." What's more, Heggie's piano skills are such that he is often sought as an accompanist or soloist. While much of the music for Dead Man Walking has an almost bel canto lyricism, there are times when the plot requires angry, angular, or abrupt qualities. "When you're in a violent environment like a prison ward or on death row, you're not going to hear melodies with arching, long lines," Heggie says. "But, when Joe [the inmate in the opera is renamed Joe de Rocher] is finally able to sing such lines, they become all the more touching and tender."

Both the music and libretto for Act I were completed in four months. Act II took five additional months, and the orchestration about five more months.

Michael Yeargan, the very literate designer of the opera's sets, describes the tension in the music as "almost like heading to a car wreck. The suspense is unbelievable - lush music, combined with this rock 'n' roll radio at the murder scene. Heggie's music has an incredible rhythm, like the ticking of a clock - like High Noon, leading you to the final moment. We've tried to orchestrate our [stage] images as they're orchestrating the music." I asked John Packard, the baritone cast as Joe to describe his approach to the role: "Although Joe is a monster, he is still a human being. Will he find redemption? It's not plausible but when I read through the score, the music captures it - it's possible. I'm honoured to be doing it."

Sister Helen, too, was a frequent collaborator throughout the opera's creation. She made it clear to both composer and librettist that she considered fidelity to the spirit of the work to be more important than the chronological details.

According to Heggie, the final result is somewhat abstract. "Abstraction allows the characters to occupy this large psychological space," he said. "We wanted the situation to be somewhat familiar in the public consciousness, but yet we needed to be allowed some creative freedom and flexibility. Think of a big quiet pond. Then imagine a huge rock thrown into the middle of it. Ripples range out through the whole pond and touch everything that borders it. The rock is the ugly crime. The ripples then wreak havoc with the families - even the criminal's mother and brothers - as well as society as a whole."

McNally, Heggie, and Sister Helen both hope that the opera doesn't necessarily make people feel sorry for the criminal, but that they are brought to a recognition that he is a fellow human, and that two wrongs don't necessarily make a right. To illustrate, Heggie recounted a personal experience: "Once, when my brother and I were arguing about the death penalty, he asked me if I would favour someone like Joe being put to death if his victim had been our mother. I answered by asking him if he would still favour the death penalty if the person who committed the crime had been one of his own children."

Since her encounter with Patrick Sonnier, Sister Helen has counselled two additional death row inmates and witnessed their deaths. She continues her ministry to inmates, their families and those of their victims, and is currently working on a book about women's struggle for equality in the Roman Catholic Church. In her warm singsong Southern accent, she affirmed that "There was not one major snag in the transition of my story into an opera. Terrence and Jake really saw it as the essential human conflict that it was." She told me how the music was beginning to affect its listeners, even before the first official performance. "Jake told me about a recent meeting of some big bankers who were considering backing the opera," she said. After a few selections from the score were performed, many of them were so moved, that they cried!"

One of America's starriest singers on the international opera scene, mezzo Susan Graham, has been chosen to sing the role of Sister Helen, with Kristine Jepson scheduled to sing the role for one performance. Frederica von Stade takes on the role of the inmate's mother. Australian baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes will sing the role of Joe for one performance. San Francisco Opera's Principal Guest Conductor Patrick Summers will conduct, while Joe Mantello directs.

Three sisters: Susan Sarandon (center) from the film version of �Dead Man Walking�, flanked by Susan Graham (right) who played the lead in the opera, and the real Sister Helen Prejean.

Michael Yeargan�s design for the bleak prison setting of the Opera

The creative team of Dead Man Walking, left to right: Jake Heggie, Terence McNally, Patrick Summers and Joe Montello.

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