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Arias From Death Row

The journey of 'Dead Man Walking' from experience to opera

By Robert Faires, Fri., Dec. 6, 2002

Opera Pacific's production of <i>Dead Man Walking</i>
Opera Pacific's production of Dead Man Walking

When Sister Helen Prejean was providing spiritual counsel to a convicted murderer on death row at Angola State Penitentiary in Louisiana, she wasn't thinking that her words and actions would someday be set to music and sung from the stages of the world's opera halls. And yet that's just what has happened; as the young nun herself made an unlikely journey into the heart of a Southern prison and the soul of a killer about to be killed, so her story of that experience has taken the unlikely odyssey from bestselling book to major motion picture and now to opera.

When San Francisco Opera General Director Lotfi Mansouri brought together composer Jake Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally to collaborate on a new opera, neither he nor they had any subject in mind. It was McNally who then produced a list of 10 works that he thought would be suitable for adaptation. What leaped out to Heggie was Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen's account of her work in Angola, which happened to be McNally's favorite work on the list. "I had such an immediate response," Heggie said in a USOperaWeb interview, "because it was the kind of drama where the emotions were so heightened it made sense for people to burst into song." Within Sister Helen's experience, the two creators also found the story of two individuals from different worlds who are drawn together under extraordinary circumstances and must rely on each other to cope with the anger, fear, and sorrow. Capital punishment is an inescapable aspect of their story, but the collaborators were determined to center their work on "the human element, not the political element," to heed Sister Helen's wish that the story remain a tale of redemption.

Heggie and McNally's version of Dead Man Walking premiered two years ago in San Francisco, earning international acclaim and stunning popular support, selling out its run. The following year, seven American opera companies co-commissioned a new staging, which has put the work well on its way to becoming a national sensation, with productions in Orange County, Cincinnati, New York City, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Austin. In January, Austin Lyric Opera becomes the fifth company in the world to present Dead Man Walking, in a production with Margaret Lattimore and Mary Phillips alternating in the role of Sister Helen and John Packard and Mel Ulrich alternating as Joseph De Rocher.

But before Sister Helen's journey is told here, the tale of how her story made its way to the operatic stage will be. On Monday, Dec. 9, the seminar "From Screen to Opera: Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's Dead Man Walking" will be held in the LBJ Auditorium below the LBJ Library. Co-sponsored by Austin Lyric Opera and the UT-Austin Humanities Institute, the event features not only the two creators in person but Sister Helen Prejean as well. Evan Carton, director of the Humanities Institute, will moderate the discussion and field questions from the audience. The seminar is free. end story


Austin Lyric Opera's production of Dead Man Walking, directed by Leonard Foglia and designed by Michael McGarty, will run Jan. 10, 12, 16, and 18, at Bass Concert Hall. For info, call 472-5992
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