By Greg Hettmansberger
"It's the only opera I know of that has, near the end, a minute and a half of silence. As DeRocher dies from the lethal injection, the music fades away, and the sound of the machinery takes over. Jake said that there was no music adequate for that moment, and I think the silence actually makes the audience 'attend' the execution as well."
The speaker quoted, Sister Helen Prejean, is both the catalyst for, and the protagonist of, the most celebrated American opera of the last fifty years: Dead Man Walking, which Madison Opera mounts in April at Overture Center.
Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun and member of the Congregation of St. Joseph, is talking to me on her cell phone from yet another airport, as her indefatigable string of speaking appearances continues unabated in the twenty-plus years since her landmark book appeared in 1993. The book quickly led to the film version starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon—but it's the opera from composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally, premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2000, that continues to bring audiences to their feet … once they remember to catch their collective breath.
The book tells the true story of how Prejean unexpectedly—and somewhat reluctantly—became a "spiritual adviser" to two death row inmates in Louisiana in the 1980s. In directing the film, Tim Robbins (and later McNally) fused the two men into a single story, in the opera, Joseph DeRocher. I asked Prejean about the processes in transforming her book into each medium.
"I was very happy with the movie. Tim told me about the need to focus the story through one prisoner instead of two. I collaborated in every line and scene, and I've always felt that the movie did a truthful job of expressing the suffering from all sides. When Jake first spoke to me about composing the opera, I told him to promise me two things: that the opera would be about redemption and that there wouldn't be a lot of atonal music, but music that people could remember. Opera is probably the greatest expression of art, with drama, story and music. Music takes your heart places that you didn’t even know you had."
Let the record show that a lot of people, all over the world, are getting their chance to remember the music, and more: Madison Opera is the thirty-fifth company to stage DMW, and there are already several more in the works. Madison Opera brings it to town to close its mainstage season with performances on April 25 and 27.
I asked general director Kathryn Smith what it is about this work that makes it right for Madison, as opposed to Los Angeles or New York. "We’re doing it because it's a great opera, and Madison deserves great opera—not because Chicago hasn't done it, for example," she says. "Why do it now? I've wanted to do it for ten years. It's 'risky' for Madison only because it's not a 'top ten' type of opera. It's emotionally hard to do and scary for everyone involved, but it's not risky in the sense that it's great music and has an incredible track record."
Smith's ten-year remark harkens back to 2002, when she was working at the Metropolitan Opera and ventured across the plaza of Lincoln Center to see DMW at the New York City Opera. It was a happy coincidence that the man in the pit that night would eventually be her colleague: John DeMain, artistic director of Madison Opera and music director of the Madison Symphony Orchestra. Shortly after the San Francisco premiere, DeMain helped organize a consortium of seven opera companies to mount the first new production of DMW, including New York City Opera and Opera Pacific.
So how does this opera—unflinching in its portrayal of the convict's horrific rape and murder of a teenage couple, the raw emotions of the victims' parents conflicting with the inmate's mother's fierce denial of her son's crime and sentence, and a young nun who struggles to answer the call to be the convict's spiritual adviser—draw audiences in and ultimately elicit bravos?