DEATH, LOVE AND SPIRITUAL JOURNEY: Lyric Opera presents local premiere of true-story drama

By Paul Horsley

Opera since its beginnings has reveled in hot political topics, from the injustices of feudal society in The Marriage of Figaro to the hapless political prisoners in works such as Andrea Chénier and Tosca. Contemporary opera occasionally takes on controversial historical issues, too, crafting real-life events not so much to make political statements as to create effective works of art. Few operas have done this as vividly as Dead Man Walking, an explosive drama drawn from the real-life experiences that Sister Helen Prejean explored in her book by the same title, which also sparked a play and an Oscar-winning film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Since its premiere in 2000, this opera has not only spurred national debate on the death penalty but it has become one of the most universally acclaimed, and most frequently performed, of American operas. On March 4th Dead Man Walking comes to the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and though one could talk about “opportune timing” for Missouri, a state with one of the nation’s highest per-capita execution rates, the Lyric wishes to emphasize that it is not trying to promote a political agenda.

De Rocher and Sister Helen both struggle for redemption and understanding / Photo courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera.

Joseph De Rocher and Sister Helen both struggle for redemption, compassion and forgiveness / Photo courtesy of Des Moines Metro Opera

“We’re certainly not doing this to change anybody’s mind,” said General Director Deborah Sandler. “We’re doing it because it’s an effective piece of musical theater. … It’s one of the most dramatically and musically compelling of the contemporary operas today, and we haven’t done it yet. I feel it is our job to produce an array of different kinds of opera … and we would be missing an opportunity if we were not to produce this.”

Deborah realizes that the opera has sparked debate in the dozens of cities in which it has been performed, and thus the Lyric is embracing the work’s potential for community conversation through an extensive series of presentations citywide. They include visits by Sister Helen (March 3rd) and composer Jake Heggie (March 5th). (Find a complete listing at kcopera.org/programs/dmw-events)

“People don’t think of opera as a living, breathing art form that deals with contemporary issues,” Deborah said. “We want to engage with the community and prove that it is.” While traditional theater often confronts issues of social justice and civil rights, “people are less accustomed to dealing with that at the opera. And this is certainly an opera that deals with topical issues.”

Internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich performs the central role of Sister Helen Prejean, in the Lyric's production of 'Dead Man Walking' / Photo by Fadil Berisha / Courtesy Lyric Opera of KC

Internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano Kate Aldrich performs the role of Sister Helen Prejean in the Lyric’s production of ‘Dead Man Walking’ / Photo by Fadil Berisha 

Dead Man Walking is a powerful piece, in some ways subtler and more intellectually challenging than the film Tim Robbins scripted from the book. Its persistence on the American operatic scene suggests that it struck a nerve among audiences, in a manner that is all too rare in contemporary opera. “It teaches us a lot about our humanity, and it takes us places where we might not have thought we would go,” Deborah said.

Nevertheless the opera is not specifically “about” the death penalty or capital punishment, she added. “It’s about Sister Helen and her spiritual journey. And it’s about understanding the needs of the perpetrator, and also understanding the needs of the victims.”

First published in 1993, Dead Man Walking tells the complex story of a Louisiana nun grappling with her own beliefs about violence, grace and redemption. It begins with Sister Helen’s hesitant friendships with inmates on Louisiana’s death row, and subsequently takes her on a humbling journey in which she begins to realize, with an enormous sense of guilt, that she has unjustly neglected paying equal attention to the families of the victims of the inmates’ crimes.

When Jake Heggie and acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally approached Sister Helen about creating an opera from the book, she gave a green-light despite trepidations. The result, first performed at San Francisco Opera in October 2000 with the mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as Helen, wildly exceeded the author’s expectations (and everybody else’s). Joshua Kosman wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle that the piece “must be reckoned something of a masterpiece.”

Sister Helen would later write: “I love this opera. I love the way it captures essential human conflicts: love or hate, compassion or vengeance, redemption or condemnation. All of life’s deepest struggles are in this opera. … It is clean and spare and pure and brings us into the deepest recesses of our own hearts.”

Sister Helen (played here by Elise Quagliata) prays for guidance, in the Des Moines Metro Opera production from 2014 prays for strength and for death-row inmate Joseph De Rocher to admit what he has done so he may clear his conscience before his execution during the Des Moines Metro Opera's production of Dead Man Walking.

Sister Helen (played here by Elise Quagliata) prays for guidance, in the Des Moines production from 2014 / Photo courtesy Des Moines Metro Opera

Sister Helen’s enthusiasm for the opera has not waned, even 17 years after its premiere. “They got it. They really got it,” she wrote. “I hope the opera is performed in every city in the world. Its theme is bigger and deeper than the question of the death penalty. It helps us journey into the deepest places of our hearts where we struggle with hurts and forgiveness, with guilt and our failings and the need for redemption.”

To be sure, there is never any doubt as to where Sister Helen herself comes down on the death penalty, as she makes clear in her starkly honest 1993 book. But her view on execution as a means of “state-sponsored vengeance” contains a germ of an idea many Americans (on both sides of the debate) can relate to: “If I were to be murdered I would not want my murderer executed,” she writes. “I would not want my death avenged. Especially by government—which can’t be trusted to control its own bureaucrats or collect taxes equitably or fill a pothole, much less decide which of its citizens to kill.”

Indeed the reason Sister Helen has exerted such an impact on this debate is precisely the down-to-earth manner with which she approaches the issue. She presents herself not as a holier-than-thou spiritual figure, but as an ordinary person filled with frailties and ambivalence. “And that, to me, is authentic: That is genuine,” Deborah said. “That says to me, okay, she’s like the rest of us. She has a different vision, she has a different job. But her initial reaction to this is pretty much the way we’d all feel.”

Photo at top: David Adam Moore as Joseph De Rocher / Photo by Cory Weaver, Lyric Opera of Kansas City

Dead Man Walking is directed by Kristine McIntyre and conducted by Steven Osgood. It stars Kate Aldrich as Sister Helen, David Adam Moore as De Rocher and Maria Zifchak as Mrs. De Rocher. Lyric set designer R. Keith Brumley has adapted and expanded sets he first created for Des Moines Metro Opera.

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The opera runs from March 4th through the 12th at the Muriel Kauffman Theatre, Kauffman Center. 816-471-7344 or kcopera.org. Read more about Helen Prejean at sisterhelen.org.

Photo at top: David Adam Moore, who also performs the role of Joseph De Rocher in the Lyric’s production, is led to his execution, in this production shot from Des Moines Metro Opera. 

To reach Paul Horsley, performing arts editor, send an email to paul@kcindependent.com or find him on Facebook or Twitter (@phorsleycritic).