A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Apr 17, 2014
11:53 AM
Classically Speaking

A Singer without a Pedigree Gives a Life and Death Performance

A Singer without a Pedigree Gives a Life and Death Performance


Michael Mayes as Joseph DeRocher

As soon as you meet baritone Michael Mayes all you can see is what a genuine, warm guy he is. He’s a lot like his dog, Pete, who has made the trip to Madison with him for Madison Opera’s season-ending production of Dead Man Walking at the end of this month. As Mayes and I get ready to talk at the Madison Opera offices earlier this week, Pete immediately wants to make friends, tail wagging, anything but threatening—and without pedigree. That is part of how Mayes describes himself in the midst of our interview. “I don’t have the Met, or Lyric in Chicago, or Los Angeles Opera; I just don’t have that pedigree. But I have companies like Tulsa and Madison that keep asking me back.”

Pedigree or not, Mayes has already accomplished something that most singers would give a lot for: the total endorsement of a composer. Of Mayes's portrayal of Joseph DeRocher, composer Jake Heggie says, “I’ve seen Mike sing Joe a few times, and I can tell you that nobody in the entire world has ever done it better or with more authority.”

More authority? That’s a scary idea, when we’re talking about a convicted rapist/murderer who is facing execution. But Mayes says that when he learned of his first opportunity to sing the role, he knew he was born to play it.

“I come from Cut n Shoot, Texas (about forty miles or so north of Houston), and I grew up with a lot of DeRochers. When I heard that Tulsa Opera was even thinking of staging Dead Man, I went to the artistic director (Kostis Protopapas) and said, ‘I’ve got to do this part; I’m Joe.’ And Kostis said, ‘I know.’ There are DeRochers all over the sticks in east Texas, and I feel a responsibility to tell that story in a fair way—fair in both directions, the ugly and the kind.”

Needless to say, the role is an incredibly challenging journey, and it changes from one production to the next, especially working with different singers as Sister Helen Prejean, the nun whose 1993 book spawned both the 1996 film and 2000 opera. Now in his third production of DMW, Mayes is singing with Daniela Mack. “Daniela is closer to the age that Sister Helen was at the time of the actual events, and she provides a sweet and safe place that DeRocher needs to hold onto in order to eventually make his confession. The other thing that strikes me about this production is that it’s the first time a woman is directing the opera. It’s hard to articulate exactly what Kristine McIntyre brings to it, but part of it is that it’s easy to see Joe as the center of the story, but he’s really just the intersection for Sister Helen and the victims’ parents, and the warden and all those feelings that make the piece what it is.”

For all the toll the piece takes on everyone involved, Mayes has firsthand evidence that Dead Man Walking is an opera that can actually change people’s lives.

“After the Tulsa performances, a woman posted on my Facebook page about how much she liked it, and all—and then she wrote that her daughter had been murdered seven years ago, and how my performance had helped her to move on. And then in Eugene [Oregon], the company had given tickets to some former convicts. At a reception after the performance, I saw a young guy, maybe twenty-two, standing nearby like he wanted to talk to me, but wasn’t approaching. So I went up to him and said, 'Hey man, what’s happening?' He took a moment and then said, ‘I saw you up there, doing your push-ups, and seeing those demons dancing on your back, and I know what that’s like. They just throw us away…but seeing what you did tonight really helped. Don’t ever stop what you’re doing.’”

Mayes pauses. “I could lose my voice tomorrow, and know that I’ve done my job.” Well, there’s a whole bunch of folks in Madison that don’t want to see that happen—and who can say what stories will be told here after we meet Joseph DeRocher?

The performances of DMW are Friday, April 25, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, April 27 at 2:30 p.m.; tickets and info are available at madisonopera.org. There is also a free event Thursday, April 24, at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational Church. Composer Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean will speak, and there will be a performance of Heggie’s song cycle, “The Deepest Desires,” to poems of Sister Helen Prejean.

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About This Blog

Years before I contributed my first classical review to the Los Angeles Times in 1988, I started a class in music appreciation for adults that had one aim: to put a few cracks in the “ivory tower elitism” I found pervasive in the classical music world since my boyhood days. Whether as a critic, program annotator or band director, that goal has never changed. After all, Mozart and Beethoven and the gang wrote their music for people like you—not critics or professors!

After growing up in the suburbs of New York City, and spending twenty years in and around Los Angeles, the last twelve years here leave me more amazed than ever at the musical riches of Madison. I’m a cheerleader at heart, because I always think more people would become classical fans if they’d give it a chance—but I’m also quick to tell you when you’re not getting your money’s worth. Classically Speaking brings you as much news and as many reviews as possible, and I hope you’ll join me for a fabulous musical journey.

–  Greg Hettmansberger
Follow Greg on Twitter @ghettmansberger

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