Writer of 'Dead Man Walking' wanted opera to stress redemption


I am very happy that we have this opera," says Sister Helen Prejean.

She's speaking by phone from Baton Rouge, La., about Dead Man Walking, the work by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally that will be performed this week by the Baltimore Opera Company.

"The music and the drama take the public through this incredible journey," she says.


That's a word Prejean returns to often when talking about the path she followed.

First was the physical journey -- a three-hour drive from the parish of New Orleans where her order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, served the poor, to the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. There she first met a man on death row who had been corresponding with her, a man who had committed a heinous double-murder.

Becoming his spiritual adviser started Prejean on an emotional journey that would make her perhaps the most prominent, and surely most eloquent, opponent of the death penalty in this country.

Her best-selling 1993 book about the experience of counseling two death row inmates, Dead Man Walking, was later made into an acclaimed film and then, in 2000, one of the most successful American operas in decades.

In both the versions, characters and events of the book were telescoped into one case, one execution, one journey.

The premiere of the Heggie-McNally work by the San Francisco Opera created something of a sensation.

"I still remember the ovation at the top of Act 2," says John Packard, the baritone who originated the role of the killer, given the fictional name Joseph De Rocher. "It was stunning, so forceful."

By the end of that first performance, Dead Man Walking was a certified success.

"Lots of subscribers gave their tickets back before the opening," says Packard, 39, who will re-create the title role in Baltimore. But, after positive reviews and word of mouth, "the company had to add two performances," he says.

Other companies throughout the country -- and beyond -- moved quickly to stage the new piece. In place after place, the fundamentally tonal and often strongly melodic opera has touched off extraordinary reactions in audiences.

The unflinchingly realistic execution scene at the end has been known to cast an unusual silence in the theater; weeping, too, has not been uncommon. Indifference is probably the only reaction the opera hasn't generated.

"I had seen the power of the film and the power of that art form to bring people on the journey," says Prejean, 66, currently relocated to Baton Rouge from New Orleans with her fellow nuns after Hurricane Katrina.

"When my agent called me and said someone wanted to make an opera out of Dead Man Walking, I thought it was wonderful. Not only would there be the drama, as in the film, but there will be music. And music takes us to a place of the heart so far beyond mere logic or argument."

A balanced telling

For Heggie, the opera represents something of a journey, too.

He was working in the public relations department of the San Francisco Opera in the late 1990s and composing on the side when company general director Lotfi Mansouri asked him to a write his first full-length work for the theater.

With award-winning playwright McNally signed on to write the libretto, it meant that Heggie, 44, would be moving into the limelight in a big way.

Prejean was not involved in the actual creation of the work. "I don't know boot-scat about opera," she says in the soft drawl of her native Baton Rouge. "I wasn't going to tell them, 'You need to write the aria this way.' You just have to turn it over in this great act of trust."

The nun did make one request, though. "Sister Helen just said, 'Please. It has to stay a story of redemption. That's all I ask,' " Heggie says.

Heggie and McNally avoided creating a lopsided polemic with high C's.

"Our goal was always just to tell the story, a balanced telling," the composer says. "It's important for everybody to have their say. Terrence was very smart the way he set up the whole thing."

That set-up involves a full-frontal assault (and full-frontal nudity). Within the first few minutes of the opera, the audience witnesses the victims of Joseph De Rocher, teenaged skinny-dippers, being attacked as they make love.

"Everybody sees the crime straight out," Prejean says. "You're horrified. You feel that if anybody deserves to die, he does. And I love the way that this is juxtaposed with the next scene -- children singing a simple little spiritual, just the opposite of what we've seen."

Contrasting emotions drive the whole opera as the characters onstage -- and people in the audience -- are forced to consider contrasting sides of what seems, on the surface, like a black-and-white, open-and-shut case.

At one point, in a sextet, three different views are heard -- the parents of the murdered teens, accusing Sister Helen of being too sympathetic to the killer and ignoring their pain; the mother of De Rocher, singing of how she failed her son; Sister Helen, unable to say anything but "I'm sorry. So sorry."

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