Dead Man Walking, the powerful opera by composer Jake Heggie and librettist-playwright Terrence McNally, had its long-awaited Lyric premiere in Chicago on Saturday, November 2nd, at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive.
Based on the New York Times bestseller by Sister Helen Prejean, which also inspired the Academy-Award winning film of the same name, in Dead Man Walking a young couple is brutally killed and the convicted murderer, Joseph De Rocher (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny/Lyric debut), awaits his fate on death row. A nun, Sister Helen Prejean (soprano Patricia Racette), becomes his pen pal and eventually his spiritual adviser. As their friendship develops, Sister Helen meets with De Rocher’s desperate mother (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham) and also with the parents of the murdered teenagers — all grappling with issues of life and death, faith and the true meaning of forgiveness.
Nicole Paiement, the founder, artistic director, and conductor of San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle, makes her Lyric debut conducting these performances. Leonard Foglia directs the production he created for a consortium of regional companies, and has staged numerous times nationally and internationally, with sets designed by Michael McGarty and costumes designed by Jess Goldstein (both Lyric debuts), lighting designed by Brian Nason, projections by Elaine J. McCarthy, and sound design by Roger Gans. Michael Black is chorus master, and Josephine Lee is children’s chorus master, overseeing members of the Chicago Children’s Choir.
Long before seeing the opera, I watched the film version starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. The film was extremely powerful, and I looked forward to the live opera version. My friend and I were deeply moved by this Lyric Opera debut, as it was perfomed about twenty years after its world premiere in San Francisco in 2000. Based on the novel about her experience as a spiritual advisor for two actual death row inmates before their executions, Dead Man Walking is about two completely different people with different lives and destinies, who are brought together to form an unlikely friendship. The opera exposes the audience, as Prejean puts it, to “the conflict of the human heart” with topics such as two sides to a human being, looking at different options involving the death penalty, and how music is used to lead us to a deeper level of reflection regarding the moral dilemmas of the capital punishment.
The opera also shows the different experience for Prejean herself, for the inmate, and for the families involved. In addition, Prejean discovers new challenges and struggles involving her own faith and beliefs in the human heart and the choices we make in life. My friend and I had never experienced something as intimate, intense, raw, powerful, and yet beautiful, to witness. The story of Dead Man Walking was brought to musical life with an all star and perfect cast which included celebrated sopranos Patricia Racette (Sister Helen Prejean) and Susan Graham (Mrs. Patrick de Rocher), lyric debut, Ryan McKinny (Joseph de Rocher), Whitney Morrison (Sister Rose), and a host of other amazing performers.
The story was perfect for the operatic stage at the Lyric. Each scene and musical number spoke to us, the audience. We enjoyed the transition from the horrific opening crime scene of the murdered teens, to the children singing at Hope House. This contrast was a bit unsettling to my friend, contrasting the intense gripping scene that displayed the darkest side of human nature and the innocent, laughter, and smiles. It was a confusing yet intriguing moment.
The set/stage design and transitions were phenomenal. The opera flawlessly unfolds its story with a variety of locations and scenes, such as Sister Helen’s three hour drive to Angola Prison to visit de Rocher, which included the use of a projector showing black and white images. The different scenes being played out behind the translucent image that were projected, added a visual flare that kept us interested in the story. The lighting also played a major role, as it was dark in the opening scene and very bright when the children were singing at Hope House.
The powerful and brutal emotion that the actors showed throughout the opera was one of the best parts of the entire evening. An example was when the parents of the victims confronted the mother of de Roucher, as both sides laid out the effects of his actions on their lives. The silence while de Roucher was put to death was also haunting – we were “witnessing” an execution and being forced to watch a man die. It was not a comfortable scene to sit through. The father of the murdered girl said that the one thing he wants back is his daughter but he cannot have that. For some of us in the audience, it made us think about how some people choose to attend and watch executions carried out.
The icing on the cake for the evening was Sister Helen Prejean, herself, walking onto the stage with the ensemble during the curtain call. I had not realized that she was going to be at the premiere! She received a standing ovation and applause for nearly ten minutes.
Dead Man Walking is not an opera for the faint of heart, but is an amazing, brutal, yet beautiful story that will change your life and perspective about humanity, and how you do not have to judge and decide everything is black and white. This opera is a must see before it leaves Chicago forever.
Photos: Shelby Homiston (Lyric Opera, Chicago)
Content Advisory: Please be advised that Dead Man Walking opens with a scene of sexual violence. The opera contains explicit language and mature themes.
Performance dates for Dead Man Walking are November 2, 6, 10, 13, 16, and 22. Performance times vary.
For tickets and information call (312) 827-5600 or go to the Lyric Opera website.
Estimated running time is 2 hours 55 minutes, including one 30-minute intermission.Dead Man Walking is performed in English with projected English texts.