A Journey Through Madison's Classical Music Scene
Apr 25, 2014
10:00 AM
Classically Speaking

Full Extension: Madison Opera Ready to Raise the Curtain on 'Dead Man Walking'

PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMES GILL PHOTOGRAPHY

Michael Mayes as Joseph DeRocher in Dead Man Walking.

General director Kathryn Smith and her staff at Madison Opera have spent nearly two months doing everything they can to make their groundbreaking, season-ending production of Dead Man Walking a real part of the greater Madison community. There have been film screenings, panel discussions, preview talks held in town and in the suburbs, but Thursday night was inevitably the best saved for last: We had face time, and plenty of it with Sister Helen Prejean, who authored the book in 1993, and Jake Heggie, who composed the music to Terrence McNally’s libretto in 2000.

The first dose of this dynamic duo came via an informal press conference at the Madison Opera offices, two stimulating hours gathered around a table with representatives from Brava, Wisconsin Public Radio and Isthmus. Although some of the material was review for some of us, it was such a treat to have both an unhurried, and far-ranging, discussion of myriad aspects of Sister Helen’s book, the genesis of the film, and of course, the opera. New fact #1: Madison Opera is producing the thirty-fifth staging of DMW; by this time a year from now, it will have been produced by the fiftieth company—and on four continents, no less.

We also learned what a great chemistry they share, genuine affection and respect and gratitude for how their lives’ work has intersected. They haven’t attended every new production together—Heggie continues to write operas, landing another bona fide hit in 2010 with Moby Dick, and Sister Helen has preached her anti-death penalty gospel tirelessly everywhere she can for over thirty years.

The public event was a shared conversation by the pair in front of a nearly standing-room only audience at the First Congregational Church. At both venues they shared one of the central moments of the opera’s creation, as well as what has become in some ways the heart of the piece itself. Near the end of Act I, Sister Helen meets for the first time—and under the worst circumstances—the four parents of the two murder victims of Joseph DeRocher. It is one week before his execution and they are all at the last hearing for a possible pardon. DeRocher’s mother is there, too.

Heggie related how a musical motif came to him, based on the parents’ singing to Sister Helen “you can’t know what it’s like to lose a child.” One by one they join in, sharing the thought and music, and DeRocher’s mother does as well, as she is, after all, on the verge of losing a child, too. Heggie called Sister Helen as he was putting the passage together…this in the days before computer multi-tracks, and he was sure it didn’t sound to her over the phone the way it was intended, but she believed in him and his music. He felt better when he called her some time later to say that he had played the scene for the opera’s major donors, and they had openly wept. “Well Jake,” Sister Helen said in her gentle drawl that seems to have a subtle ribbing quality built in, “maybe they were just seein’ their money goin’ down a hole!”

In giving the evening audience a big picture overview of what this is really all about, Sister Helen used the illustration of a large cross with a crucified Christ on it, one arm representing the pain of the victims’ families, the other representing DeRocher, and we are in the middle. Her journey started so innocently: asked to become a “pen pal” for a death row inmate in Louisiana, she didn’t hesitate, knowing that there had been nearly a twenty-year unofficial moratorium on executions in the state. Within two years, Sister Helen would become spiritual adviser to two such men, and accompany both of them to their executions. “I tell Christians that Jesus is just so sneaky.”

Obviously that was the big turning point in her life, and in discussing aspects of this with Heggie a year of so after DMW’s premiere, Heggie asked her if she could write down some of what she told him about the intersection of one’s “deepest desires” with God’s will for one’s life. The result was a set of poems, and Heggie set it in a song cycle, “The Deepest Desire.” This was the other feature of the evening event, as Heggie performed it, along with mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer (who will sing the role of DeRocher’s mother this weekend) and flutist Stephanie Jutt.

Heggie considers the set the perfect complement to the opera, as the latter is bigger and more of an outward physical journey, whereas the songs immediately lend an intimacy and personal expression of spirituality. Like Heggie’s operas, the songs emerged in an individually tonal style, the vocal lines flowing and soaring, but also capturing some genuine humor in “I Catch on Fire.” Jutt’s playing was as lyrical as Mentzer’s vocalism, and at the end we could all say we knew Sister Helen even better than before. The closing “Primary Colors” contains the lines “I hold my soul in equanimity/ And leave the fruits of my labors to God.” As true as it appears to be, we must remember that a significant part of that fruit led to a powerful statement from one of America’s greatest playwrights, and as it seems to have turned out, one of our greatest composers.

Sister Helen has said that the question most asked of her in regard to the opera is, “what is it like seeing ‘yourself’ on stage?” “It just means I’ve been able to tell the story—the big story—and get it out there where people can learn it who wouldn’t otherwise know about this. I’m just the vehicle.”

Tomorrow night at last (and Sunday afternoon), Madison gets its chance to take Sister Helen’s journey with her. All who are present in Overture Hall will not be the same when they come out.  

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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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