Song of Life on Death Row

Austin Lyric Opera furthers its string of pioneering premieres With 'Dead Man Walking'

John Packard and Margaret Lattimore rehearse a scene between  Joe DeRocher and Sister Helen Prejean in <i>Dead Man Walking</i>.
John Packard and Margaret Lattimore rehearse a scene between Joe DeRocher and Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking. (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

The space is small and austere: fluorescent bulbs and walls of bare brick, a window for observers in an adjoining room, a metal gurney on which a prisoner will be strapped down and pumped full of chemicals that will arrest the action of his lungs and heart. It's an unlikely setting for an opera, even one that deals, as so many operas do, with death. Were it a wooden scaffold, with steps the prisoner could ascend in his final hour and a noose or chopping block presided over by a masked executioner, it might have the whiff of drama and romance appropriate to this form of art. But this room, with its straps and syringes and government-issue glare, is too clinical, too cold, too modern, too close to home, to contain the sweeping passions that we associate with grand opera.

And yet within this sterile chamber, a new opera manages a climax of exceptional musical and dramatic intensity, poetry and power. Dead Man Walking, adapted by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally from the book by Sister Helen Prejean, brings to this place a killer about to be executed and the nun serving as his spiritual adviser. Here, they face death together and, in that terrifying circumstance, discover love's power to redeem and from that a new life.

And they are not alone in being so profoundly affected. Here, opera itself finds a kind of new life, too: from the assured debut of a young composer; from the vigor and relevance to contemporary audiences in this work; from the exploration of new settings and styles. Local audiences will be able to experience this work themselves this week when Austin Lyric Opera becomes the fifth company in the world to stage Dead Man Walking. How this opera came to be -- and to be in Austin before almost every other city in the world -- reveals the great risks and rewards in developing new works for the modern operatic stage. And how ALO's production fares may reveal whether new operas will continue to find life in the heart of Texas.

The Conception

Jake Heggie readily admits that his part in the creation of Dead Man Walking is as unlikely as the opera's setting. The young composer had never written an opera or even thought about writing one before he was invited to do so by Lotfi Mansouri, the head of San Francisco Opera. Heggie worked on the company's public relations staff, but he also wrote art songs and was developing a name as a composer thanks to a friend, eminent soprano Frederica von Stade.

"I wrote some stuff for her, and she started performing it and talking about it, and other singers started doing the stuff," Heggie says, "and one day the general director asked me into his office. I was there with a pad ready to write his next speech, and he said, 'Have you ever thought about writing an opera?' I said, 'No, I really haven't. But I suppose if it were the right project, what composer wouldn't love to try that?' He said, 'Well, put the pad down. Let's talk about it.' I was stunned, because I wasn't gunning for this or anything. He said he wanted to send me to New York to meet with Terrence McNally. He'd been interested in getting him to write an opera for years and thought we might make a good team. I just sat there and said, 'OK.'" Heggie thought his life would be all press releases and art songs, but Mansouri's "leap of faith" pushed him to opera.

Although the director initially conceived of the new work as a comic affair -- "something lighthearted and celebratory for the millennium, kind of a party opera," says Heggie -- neither of his chosen collaborators was interested in comedy. But their first meeting ended without a dramatic subject both liked, and Heggie assumed the project was dead. Six months later, though, McNally called him. Inspired by a performance of Samuel Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915 by Renee Fleming -- an American work sung by an American singer -- and encouragement from Fleming, McNally was determined to pursue the project (see "Dead Man Writing," p.28).

The two got together again, and this time McNally came with a list of 10 ideas for operas. But he told Heggie, "There's only one that I want to do, though." The one turned out to be Dead Man Walking, and when Heggie began thinking about the story's operatic possibilities, he says, "at its heart it's an intimate story with huge forces at work, which is in the tradition of great opera -- it all made sense. And it's so American and so timely, yet so universal and so timeless. All the struggles are things humans have dealt with as long as we've been around."

Even though Heggie endorsed the idea, he hadn't read Sister Helen's book or seen Tim Robbins' film. In fact, he'd actively resisted seeing the movie. "I was afraid of where it would take me emotionally," he says. "I didn't want to feel sympathy for this guy who had done this monstrous thing. It made me nervous, like it makes a lot of people nervous. We avoid going to those deeper places emotionally a lot of the time." Still, to familiarize himself with the work, he watched it once with McNally, then read the book several times, underlining passages and making notes.

The pair spent six months discussing the story, developing a structure, distilling it into dramatically effective parts, creating a narrative flow. Right away, they decided to eliminate any question as to the guilt of the man Sister Helen was counseling, here called Joe De Rocher. The opera would begin with De Rocher murdering the two teenagers, to start at a point of outrage. "We were going to take him from being a monster and show that he was a human being."

The Composition

The libretto came first -- and quickly. According to Heggie, McNally wrote the first act in just four days. With the composer present at the playwright's home in Key West, McNally "sat down for four days, for a few hours each day, just writing at his little table, and on the last day he said, 'OK, it's done.'" A stunned Heggie asked McNally to read it to him, and the composer recalls "sitting there with my mouth open, thinking, 'My job is going to be so easy. This is so strong and so heartfelt.' I knew there were things I was going to trim or adjust, but all the essentials were there. It was astounding."
Jake Heggie
Jake Heggie

Earlier, the opera novice hadn't felt so at ease about the task before him. "It was pretty daunting," he says. "I started to feel like, 'Oh God, what am I going to do?' Just terrified. But I've learned that that terror is probably a good thing in the arts whenever you take on a new job. You get too comfortable; you stop challenging yourself; and you start repeating yourself, which is deadly. So I felt that terror, and yet working with Terrence was so easy and calming, and the music just started coming to me as we were talking about characters."

Character proved the key that opened the door from art songs to opera. Heggie says he's always written songs with "a character in mind, with a psychology behind the music and words, and saying things the words don't say just by themselves. I mean, there has to be a reason people are singing rather than speaking. I think it was a carryover from the songwriting and the writing of cycles, where there's a through-line, a dramatic thread that carries the performer and the listener through an entire set of songs.

"I got to know these characters so well and got to know the psychology behind why they do what they do so clearly that by the time I started writing their music, the sounds they make were very, very clear to me. By the time Terrence finished the first act, I had a really good idea of what I was going to do. He'd set up great dramatic situations that inspired music, and the language was very spare and clear. He wrote a play; he didn't write a libretto.

"From the beginning, Terrence told me, 'I'm not a librettist. I'm not a lyricist. I'm a playwright. I'm just going to write very simple things, and I hope it will inspire music. Because in this story, people talk like they talk. It's the music and the staging and that kind of magic that will add the dimension of poetry.' Yet when those simple phrases came out, to me they were very poetic. I think Terrence underestimates the power of what he does."

Heggie's feeling about the ease of setting McNally's text to music proved prescient. The first act took him four and a half months to compose, the second act a little longer. "I wrote it pretty quickly," Heggie says, "considering that I'd never done that sort of thing before."

In at least one instance, that was an understatement. McNally and Heggie developed a key scene at a pardon board hearing in which De Rocher's mother pleads for her son's life, and the parents of the murdered teens confront Sister Helen. The scene builds with all the parents singing, "You don't know what it's like" to bear a child, to bury a child, to fail your child, to which Sister Helen sings, "I'm sorry. So sorry." With its dramatic turning point, its one chance for the parents to share their part of the story, and the group singing, revealing parents of the killer and killed alike to be suffering over their lost children, the scene made huge demands on Heggie. "It had to be a musical highlight. It had to be something that people would remember," he says. So how long did the scene take Heggie to write? One day. "It just fell out," he says. "I spent a few days thinking about it and then just sat down and started writing it. This tune, this 'You don't know' tune, suddenly popped in, with this almost baroque accompanying figure -- simple, but with this gnawing quality, like a passacaglia."

The Conflict

The pain expressed in the parents' ensemble does gnaw at the listener. Hearing it, you can feel the hunger of the parents who wish to see their children's killer killed but also the desperation of a mother who wants that same killer, her child, saved. The opera's generation of conflicting feelings is one of its real achievements and may surprise those who believe the work was created with a political agenda.

Heggie and McNally were adamant that their opera not be a soapbox, that it be a human story that did not exclude any point of view. "That's why the parents' ensemble was so important: You understand why they want the guy killed," says Heggie. "It's terrible, what's happened to them and to their children. The warden, the prison chaplain, the guards -- all of them get to voice their opinion. We tried to give a balanced picture [of the death penalty issue], and I think we succeeded in the sense that I've heard some people leave the theatre saying, 'It's a terrible thing, the death penalty, it shouldn't happen,' and at the same time, someone with them saying, 'Oh, I disagree, I think this opera totally supports the death penalty. The guy deserved what he got.' And I've heard people say, 'I've never thought about it in such human terms before.'"

Because Dead Man Walking treats a topical issue and because its central character is based on a living person who campaigns most actively on that issue, the art of the work is sometimes eclipsed by the politics in it. "It's easy to label it 'the death penalty opera,'" says Heggie. "It's probably as much of a death penalty opera as Tosca is. The central issue is not the death penalty. It's what raises the stakes. It raises the stakes to life and death throughout the whole thing. It's a ticking bomb. But that's the backdrop. The central issue is these two people who are finding how love can transform and transcend and redeem their lives."

That's not to say that the creators have no feelings about capital punishment. Heggie insists that composing the opera changed him. "I was ambivalent about the death penalty," he says. "That's a pretty horrifying thing to admit, being ambivalent about where we as a society are deciding who lives and dies and how we put them to death. That's serious stuff. People talk about, 'That'll never happen in my family. That'll never affect me.' You know what? If you're a citizen of this country and there's a federal execution, you're part of it. If you're in a state where they're executing people, you're part of it. So you better have an opinion about it. My opinion has shifted dramatically because I think the deeper you get into these waters, the more you realize it's an impossible situation. If you say, 'Well, the mass murderers, we have to reserve it for them,' you're saying that someone who murders 40 people is much worse than someone who murders your brother. How do you draw that line?"

In Heggie's case, part of the shift came from putting himself emotionally where he was initially afraid to go: in the heart of a murderer. "The hardest character to write was Joe," says the composer, "because he's so conflicted. He has such a complicated past. It's almost as if he was predestined to fall into this sort of life. How you find the little boy who's been betrayed by the world in all that and make that clear without sounding ridiculous or clichéd or corny is very tricky. There is so much that is repellent and abhorrent about him that I don't like, but as I write it, I have to love the whole person and present him three-dimensionally.

John Packard and Margaret Lattimore rehearse a scene in <i>Dead Man Walking</i>.
John Packard and Margaret Lattimore rehearse a scene in Dead Man Walking. (Photo By Bret Brookshire)

"What it makes you realize is that this is not a monster; this is a person who has done monstrous things. That's the big distinction people need to make: We're not dealing with monsters; we're dealing with humans who have done terrible, terrible things, unforgivable things. But I don't think we or our government should be making the decision to put them to death. I wouldn't trust the government to balance my checkbook. I don't want to give them the power to decide who lives and who dies.

"[The death penalty] is not equitably distributed. Who's on death row? Poor people of color. And who's on death row also depends on the color or status of the person who was killed. We're not perfect. We're mere human beings. How can we do this God job? How can we take on that burden? Does the person deserve to die? Probably. Do we deserve to make that decision? Probably not."

The Response

In October 2000, audiences had the first opportunity to experience Dead Man Walking as opera, when San Francisco Opera offered the world premiere production directed by Joe Mantello, with Susan Graham as Sister Helen, John Packard as Joe De Rocher, and Frederica von Stade as Mrs. De Rocher. Critics noted that the standing ovations for the work were among the most enthusiastic they'd ever seen. Audiences bought tickets in record-setting numbers, and SFO took the extraordinary move of scheduling an additional performance. Dead Man Walking became the most successful new opera in the history of the company.

The critical appraisal was not uniformly glowing, but much of the praise was radiant. Writing in London's The Guardian, Martin Kettle said, "Dead Man Walking makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theatre since West Side Story more than 40 years ago. ... [Heggie's] music is rich and emotionally charged ... and carries enormous atmospheric power." Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote that the opera "must be reckoned something of a masterpiece -- a gripping, enormously skillful marriage of words and music to tell a story of love, suffering, and spiritual redemption."

The impact on audiences (and box office) quickly caught the notice of opera companies across the country. Staging any opera is expensive and risky, but new works are especially so, since audiences may not turn out in the numbers that they would for a tried-and-true hit by Verdi or Puccini. As a result, companies have started to pool their resources to pay for new productions, which then travel from city to city. After SFO's premiere, a new version of Dead Man Walking, with new sets and costumes and staging by Leonard Foglia, was commissioned by a record seven companies: Opera Pacific, Cincinnati Opera, New York City Opera, Michigan Opera Theatre, Pittsburgh Opera, Baltimore Opera Company, and our own Austin Lyric Opera.

Dead Man Walking will be ALO's third new American opera in as many seasons. Supporting new work was the mission of Joseph McClain as ALO general manager, and his efforts moved the company to the forefront of the nation's regional operas. Two years ago, ALO was the second company in the world to mount Carlisle Floyd's valedictory work Cold Sassy Tree. Last year it was the fourth to stage Andre Previn's adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. Now, it is the fifth to produce Dead Man.

To judge by the three follow-up productions to date, the reaction at the premiere was no fluke, from either a critical or audience standpoint. The Cincinnati Enquirer's Janelle Gelfand called the work "a visionary achievement ... a seamless union of drama and music." And audiences streamed to the Cincinnati Opera production. The company was even able to sell one of the performances entirely with single tickets.

Despite the acclaim, Heggie says many patrons come to the opera concerned about the subject matter. "I think their greatest fear is that this opera is going to be this big debate about the death penalty, and that's something they're not interested in seeing debated in the theatre. When they find out that it's this human story, they're really surprised. That's been the biggest obstacle in getting people interested in going to the piece, that fear that they're going to be preached to."

Of course, the opera has help overcoming that obstacle. There are the story's previous incarnations, the book and the film. Then there is the issue of capital punishment itself and Sister Helen's crusade against it. These fuel attention for the opera, especially in states such as Texas where the death penalty is liberally applied. Productions of Dead Man have spawned seminars and forums about the issue -- ALO has one scheduled for Jan. 21 with Bishop Gregory Aymond -- and Sister Helen has made appearances in cities where the work is produced. She not only appeared in Austin (and will return for the ALO opening), she also wrote an open letter to Gov. Rick Perry, inviting him to see it, and had it published on the Austin American-Statesman op-ed page.

Such attention, and the reaction in other cities, bodes well for the local presentation of Dead Man Walking. Still, much has changed in the five years since Lotfi Mansouri invited Jake Heggie into his office. Much has changed in just the two years since the work premiered. "The commissions in the Nineties -- and there were a lot of commissions of new American operas -- happened because we were in good economic times," Heggie notes. "We're in now what a friend of mine calls 'a Magic Flute economy,' because that's what you'll see a lot of: Magic Flute, Bohème, Carmen, ... the Top 10. People are worried about box office. My fear is that people will revert to being afraid of taking a step outside established boundaries, and opera will not survive in the future if it's entirely a museum institution. You have to replenish that repertoire."

Locally, the biggest advocate for replenishing that repertoire is no longer with the opera. Last fall, Joe McClain was dismissed from the company he co-founded, in part over just the economic issues Heggie cites (see "Articulations," Oct. 11, 2002). Without McClain pushing for new work and a fear of red ink driving selection, Dead Man Walking could be the last new opera that Austin sees for some time.

Then again, this opera is all about transforming power. If enough people see and are moved by ALO's production of Dead Man Walking, who's to say that it might not transform the future of Austin Lyric Opera? Or, for that matter, the future of the death penalty in Texas. Are you listening, Gov. Perry? end story

Dead Man Walking will be performed Jan. 10, 12, 16, and 18 at Bass Concert Hall. Call 472-5992 for information.

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