FWO Archives: Jake Heggie's 'Dead Man Walking' (2009 Festival)
Updated: Aug 23
During the early 1980s in Louisiana, two brothers, Joseph and Anthony De Rocher, are convicted of rape and murder of a teenage couple. Anthony is sentenced to life in prison, while Joseph is put on death row.
Many months later, a young nun, Sister Helen Prejean, who works with underprivileged children, begins corresponding with Joseph. He asks her to visit him, and she agrees. Despite discouragement from her friend, Sister Rose, Helen makes the long d rive to the prison, pondering the step she is taking. She is met by the prison chaplain, Father Greenville, who is angered by the fact she came to the prison, which is no place for a woman. The warden, George Benton, warns her that Joseph is remorseless but will likely ask her to be his spiritual advisor. He walks her through death row to meet Joseph, who tests her tolerance by recalling the pleasures he has had with women. He also admits fear and asks her to be his spiritual advisor. Helen agrees.
Helen accompanies Joseph's mother, Mrs. Patrick De Rocher, to the Pardon Commission, where the mother pleads for her son's life. Helen is confronted by the parents of the murdered teens, Owen and Kitty Hart and Howard and Jade Boucher, who are outraged that a nun would console a murderer and never bother to offer comfort to them. The verdict comes back and the appeal is denied. Helen and Joseph have another meeting in which she insists that Joseph acknowledge his guilt and ask for forgiveness. Since Joseph sees no hope for redemption, he remains remorseless and refuses to accept responsibility for the crime. Helen, feeling ill, retires to a waiting room, where she feels overwhelmed by the conflicting forces confronting her.
Joseph is told that his execution date will be August 4, at midnight. Alone in his cell, he contemplates his impending death and remembers the crime he committed. Simultaneously, Sister Helen has a troubling dream in which she sees the murdered teenagers and awakens with a scream. Sister Rose comes to console her and tells her that she still has to find in her faith the strength to forgive Joseph, just as a mother forgives her children's failings.
Helen's next meeting with Joseph is on the evening of his execution. Discovering mutual interest s, they are surprised to recognize each other as friends rather than just nun and prisoner. Joseph's family arrives for a final visit, and his mot her seeks comfort in remembering his carefree boyhood. Sister Helen is then left alone to contemplate what lies ahead of her. As witnesses begin to arrive for the execution, Helen is once again confronted by the parents of the murdered teenagers. Owen lags behind the others, expressing his doubts of Joseph's execution. Helen offers him friendship and advises she will visit him.
After Joseph is prepared for execution, Helen is left alone with him for a final visit. She tells him that she has visited the crime scene and begs him to confess to her what happened that night. With only minutes remaining, Joseph finally confesses and wonders if anybody could ever forgive him. Helen assures him that he has her forgiveness, and also God's. The warden escorts Joseph to the death chamber, as the chaplain recites the Lord's Prayer. After Joseph is strapped to the gurney for his lethal injection, he asks the parents' forgiveness. His last words are to Sister Helen: "I love you." As Joseph is executed, Sister Helen's hymn is the last thing he hears.
The Real Dean Man Walking Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking uses time-honored operatic and theatrical devices to guide the audience through an all-too-common human tragedy. The brutal murder of two teenagers throws together persons who otherwise would not be joined: devastated parents, a pair of hapless brothers convicted of murder (one on death row), the helpless mother of these convicts, and a nun.
First the nun, for the opera really is about her. Sister Helen Prejean, born in 1939 and raised in Baton Rogue, Louisiana, was first swept to national attention in 1993 by her book Dead Man Walking: an Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States. The spotlight intensified in 1995 with the release of a Hollywood film by the same name, directed by Tim Robbins. The cinematic blockbuster, featuring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, earned four Oscar nominations, and brought Susan Sarandon the award for Best Actress in the role of Sister Prejean. Willingly or not, Prejean became a figurehead in the reawakened national debate on the death penalty.
A sheltered product of a loving, middle-class home, the real Sister Prejean was unprepared for the role she assumed in 1982 when she became embattled spiritual advisor of convicted murderer Patrick Sonnier. Her book Dead Man Walking chronicles her struggles through this uncharted territory, from initial correspondence and meetings with Sonnier at Louisiana's Angola State Prison, to her wrenchingly belated understanding of the effect such heinous crimes had on the victims' families. She counseled Sonnier until his execution in 1983, and then took on (reluctantly at first) the role of spiritual advisor to other death-row inmates, beginning with Robert Lee Willie, also a convicted murderer and rapist of teenagers.
Prejean became an expert in the judicial history of the death penalty in the United States, particularly the inconsistencies and inequities all too often present in its application. On the strength of her book sales, and her nominations for both a Pulitzer Prize and two Nobel Peace prizes, Prejean has pursued her crusade against the death penalty, while using her fame to draw more attention to the needs of victims' families.
"Dead Man Walking" is a traditional cry made when an inmate on death row is led to the execution chamber. In the screen version, Prejean's Christian mission (to lead the condemned man to redemption) shared the focus with other issues, particularly the legal battle to have his sentence commuted to a life sentence as well as her horrified discovery of what she calls, in her book, the "cool professionalism" of the execution apparatus.
With music, however, the focus can, and must change. Opera is, foremost, about emotion. The intimacy and communicative power of music allowed composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally to delve into Sister Prejean's literary account and intensify the emotional portrayal of each character. McNally's handed Heggie a libretto brimming with energy and sensitivity. "One of the reasons it was so easy to set Terrence's words," said Heggie, "is that he has a sense of forward motion in his language."
The character of Joseph De Rocher, the convict executed in the opera, was actually a composite drawn from Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. The profile of the teenagers' murder follows largely Sonnier's crimes, while much of the punchy dialogue comes directly from Prejean's exchanges with Willie. Prejean was able to retain and record more details of their conversations since she now knew what to expect from the mechanical process of execution. The secondary figures of the opera - the Motor Cop, Prison Warden, the Prison Chaplain, the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, the bereaved parents, and Joseph De Rocher's siblings - are based in fact, too. In operatic terms, these characters provide the same qualities they did in real-life: perspective, balance, and sometimes even humor.
The heart-wrenching character of Joseph De Rocher's mother (also a composite) was crafted most tenderly for Frederica van Stade, Heggie's fervent admirer and mentor. It is quickly rising as one of contemporary opera's most engaging roles. The role of Joseph De Rocher bristles with challenges, not the least of which is the fact that the singer must, within four scenes only, convince the audience that he is someone worth caring about. And, of course, the role of Sister Prejean demands virtually every expression a singer can produce.
The Creators of the Opera
From his youth, Jake Heggie (b. 1961) has been a prolific song writer. His enviable gift for song-writing led San Francisco Opera General Director Lotfi Mansouri to encourage Heggie to take the plunge, at age 39, and write his first opera. Mansouri introduced the composer to the eminent playwright Terrance McNally (b. 1939) famed for a long list of hit plays and Tony awards for his plays Love! Valour! Compassion! and Master Class and his books for the musicals Kiss of the Spiderwoman and Ragtime. Finding a topic sufficiently engaging for McNally presented a hurdle, until the playwright came upon Prejean's story. Heggie agreed instantly and the project was launched. Sister Prejean consulted closely on the earlier film, but she left the operatic version comfortably in the hands of its creative team, confident that they would craft it with "truth and honesty."
A spectacular two-million-dollar gift from San Francisco Opera patroness Phyllis Wattis ensured that Dead Man Walking would come to fruition. Despite the fact that Wattis herself did not care for the bold topic, she recognized that "even the tried and true operas take a lot of money to produce, so [the San Francisco Opera] might just as well produce one that's new at the same time."
No one could have predicted how swiftly this "new" opera would find success. The Guardian (London) said of the 2000 premiere, "Dead Man Walking makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theater since West Side Story more than 40 years ago." Quick upon the triumph in San Francisco came successful productions at home and abroad. Critical reaction remains markedly positive. But a powerful audience response tells the real tale of this opera. From the initial downbeat to the riveting conclusion, the audience is swept into a tragedy that can have no happy ending.
The Music of Dead Man Walking
Heggie's music is awash in lyricism. The opera is achingly beautiful throughout. The overture begins tentatively with two descending pitches, extended to a three-note descending pattern. The flute joins, then more strings, and the music builds into a swell of upward-arching lines. Many critical melodies in the opera will ascend, from De Rocher's matter-of-fact presentation of his name and prison number in his initial meeting with Prejean, to her soaring message that "The truth will set you free" and her final promise just before the execution: "I will be the face of [Christ's] love for you."
But other key melodies drop downwards, quietly, as if in pain. Statements of three syllables stand out in particular: Sister Prejean's words "This journey" in her first aria, and her oft-repeated "I'm sorry" are both set in a three-note descending pattern. At the end of Act One, at the clemency hearings when Prejean first encounters the murdered children's parents, a father's gruff words dissolve into a gripping theme ("You don't know") that outlines a descending minor sixth. Fragments of descending melodies, braced by beautiful lyrical lines, weave into a sextet as magnificent as any in Western opera. No matter how tightly the vocal lines twist together above the forlorn, harsh accompaniment of cellos and basses, not one of the six characters changes sympathies.
Still, there is humor. The words of the Motor Cop ("I've never gave a nun no ticket before") derive accurately from Prejean's exchange with an officer who pulled her for speeding on her way to meet Sonnier at Angola. Similarly, senior Prison Chaplain Father Grenville (" A man like [De Rocher] will never see the face of Our Lord.") and the kindly Warden Benton ("I thought all you religious folk stuck together") are factual. Life, in these instances, provided drama fully sufficient for the art form.
Those familiar with details of the Tim Robbins' movie will make rewarding comparisons between the two dramatizations: for instance, the cinematic convict's statement of his longing for women (taken primarily from Prejean's conversation with Willie) is fanned by Heggie and McNally into a sultry aria infused with Cajun flavor. ("Everything is gonna be alright.") Its sensuality is one of many assaults on Prejean's modesty as she searches for the inner strength to fulfill her role. The nun's fa int from hunger (an actual event that led the Death House to change its policy of banning outsiders from bringing a supply of food for the long hours of vigil) fostered the tense scene that ends Act One. Similarly Prejean's terrified prayer for spiritual strength uttered on the day of the execution fuels Prejean's most plaintive aria "Who will walk with me?" The woman standing on the cold, bleached tiles of the Death House restroom is far removed from the naïve nun who began as a pen pal to a convict.
Then, as the clock ticks closer to midnight, we hear De Rocher's long-overdue confession. It needed no dramatic tweaking by composer or librettist ("I killed her, Sister.") The electrifying exchange is made more explosive by the pulsating orchestra. Sister Prejean's goal of Christian redemption and reconciliation for death-row inmates is not adulterated in this opera.
Finally, there is the matter of the deaths themselves. Murders and even executions are stock scenes in opera, from Don Giovanni and Rigoletto, to Tosca and Billy Budd. But the question for Heggie and McNally remained: how should these events be staged for a contemporary audience? What melodies or harmonies are the right ones to portray murder, rape, and execution?
Their solution is highly believable and effective. The overture dissolves into the easy sounds of radio rock on a balmy late spring night. Two teens on a blanket in each others' arms are set upon by De Rocher and his brother. Vocally, we hear realistic screams and cries, underscored by acerbic orchestral blows and rhythmic chaos. We see De Rocher's actions - leaving no doubt as to his guilt.
In contrast, the execution at the opera's conclusion is presented in complete silence, with the chilling exception of beeps from the equipment administering and monitoring the process of death. Most significantly, both of these scenes are broken by the lone, plaintive voice of Sister Prejean, singing a Gospel tune "He Will Gather Us Around." At critical points throughout the opera, fragments of this child-like song serve as thematic glue for the difficult progression of events.
In a documentary about the making of the film, the real Sister Prejean stated. "True art, I think, brings you over to both sides of a conflict, and all you do is just bring people there" Dead Man Walking succeeds in this goal, yet Heggie and McNally have achieved an even higher purpose of art: to render a story indelibly upon the mind and soul. As it has throughout history, the genre of opera proves able to take on the toughest contemporary issue and, as Sister Prejean said, "bring people there," completely engaging the ear, moving the heart, and leaving no one quite the same at the final curtain.
- Dr. Carol Reynolds ©2009
Dr. Carol spent 21 years as a music history professor at Southern Methodist University. She now raises goats on a ranch in Montague County, Texas, and continues her career in arts education. Her DVD/ internet-based course Discovering Music: 300 Years of Interaction in Western Music, Arts, History, and Culture will be published in June 2009 (Silver Age Music). www.professorcarol.com.
CAST AND CREATIVE
Music by Jake Heggie
Libretto by Terrence McNally
Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, CSJ
Sung in English
This opera was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera.
CONDUCTOR Joe lllick
DIRECTOR David Gately
SCENIC DESIGNERS Harry Frehner with Scott Reid
COSTUME DESIGNER Scott Reid+
MAKEUP AND WIG DESIGNER James P. McGough
LIGHTING DESIGNER Chad R. Jung
STAGE MANAGER Lisa Marie Lange
ASSISTANT DIRECTOR Karina Kacala
CHORUS MASTER Chris Devlin+
REPETITEUR Emily Jarrell Urbanek
The Cast in Order of Vocal Appearance
JOSEPH DE ROCHER Daniel Okulitch
ANTHONY DE ROCHER Tyler Cochran+
SISTER HELEN PREJEAN Robynne Redmon
SISTER ROSE Adrienne Danrich+
SISTER LILLIANNE Kristin Spires
SISTER CATHERINE Meredith Browning
MOTORCYCLE COP Michael Mayes+
FATHER GRENVILLE Jamin Flabiano**
PRISON WARDEN Seth Mease Carico*+
GUARD 1 Leslie John Flanagan**+
GUARD 2 Evan McCormack**+
MRS. PATRICK DE ROCHER Sheryl Woods+
OWEN HART Ryan Taylor
JADE BOUCHER Ashley Kerr*+
KITTY HART Courtney Ross*+
HOWARD BOUCHER Jonathan Blalock*
YOUNGER SON Kyle Booth+
OLDER SON Nathan Patrick+
+Fort Worth Opera Debut Season
*Fort Worth Opera Studio Artist
**Festival Young Artist