Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, part of the 2009 Fort Worth Opera Festival at Bass Performance Hall, moves far beyond its surface issue of capital punishment to question the nature of forgiveness and, indeed, to ask what we owe to our fellow human beings, including those who commit heinous crimes.
The book upon which it is based, a memoir of the nun Helen Prejean’s association with two convicted killers in Louisiana, was published in 1993, and provided the basis for the Oscar-winning film of 1995. Playwright Terrence McNally, a pillar of the American theater for decades, provided the libretto, and Jake Heggie wrote the music for the opera, which premiered in San Francisco in 2000.
Dead Man Walking belongs to the unique American operatic subgenre of the current events opera, previously represented by John Adams’ Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer; it also represents the ongoing and growing trend among American composers to set works of American literature. As in the movie, the opera condenses the two killers Prejean wrote about into a single composite character; in the opera, that character is given the fictitious name Joseph de Rocher. (Heggie will move on to a masterpiece of American novels with his opera of Moby-Dick, which will have its world premiere by the Dallas Opera at the new Winspear Opera Hall in April 2010.)
Some elements of Dead Man Walking are strikingly innovative, such as the radio backdrop to the grisly first scene (this is not an opera for children) and or the long stretch of silence (a rarity in a genre based on sound) at the execution scene. This is surely the only opera ever to include a scene in which a cop stops a character for speeding (based on a very real incident in Prejean’s adventures); it’s certainly the only opera I’ve ever seen in which vending machines are an essential part of the sets.
On the other hand, traditional-style arias, ensembles, and even choral scenes demonstrate that this piece is well-rooted in tradition. Structurally, Dead Man Walking is very much a descendant of Puccini’s operas.
And traditional harmonies and a strong sense of melody predominate; an old-fashioned pentatonic hymn melody, “He Will Gather Us Around,” provides a recurring musical motif, taking on a constantly increasing emotional power as the opera progresses.
Dramatically and musically, Heggie and McNally have created a cast of extraordinarily intense characters. Helen Prejean, performed with stamina and a gorgeous sense of lyricism by Robynne Redman, naturally carries the greatest dramatic burden as she struggles with the concept of loving someone whom one could much more easily hate. Prejean and Sister Rose, powerfully performed by Adrienne Danrich, together grapple with the point that it’s not just enough for God to forgive; humans need to forgive also.
Daniel Okulitch paced out the role of the killer Rocher carefully, as McNally and Heggie obviously intended. He’s almost cold at first, and only gradually reveals his agony. Veteran Sheryl Woods stole the spotlight every time she came onstage as the killer’s mother, the only entirely sympathetic, straightforwardly pathetic character in the opera.
Multi-tiered, cage-like sets by Harry Frehner and Scott Reid (originally designed for Calgary Opera) were grim but never oppressive; their transparency almost suggested the possibility of discovery and light in the midst of the dark situation.
Director David Gates once again brought his keen combination of insight and imagination to a Fort Worth Opera production, creating an aura of day-to-day reality on stage that in turn gave the opera its gripping emotional effect. The Fort Worth Symphony, conducted by Joe Illick, continued to provide a strong instrumental foundation for the events on stage.
►Wayne Lee Gay was active as a classical music and dance critic in the Dallas-Fort Worth region for many years, and is a past finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism. He is currently completing a Ph.D. in creative writing at the University of North Texas, where he is a teaching fellow in the English department. He is managing editor of the American Literary Review, and recently completed the short story cycle Jeans, Boots and Starry Skies.
The Fort Worth Opera Festival continues through May 10, with alternating performances of Rossini's Cinderella and Bizet's Carmen. Also, here is info on the organization's 2010 festival season, which includes the world premiere of the opera Before Night Falls by Cuban-American composer Jorge Martín.