A Long Walk to Redemption

Madison Opera closes its season with the stunning 'Dead Man Walking,' and extends the stage throughout the city

'Dead Man Walking' is an unflinching, contemporary and moving production.

'Dead Man Walking' is an unflinching, contemporary and moving production.


“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 this month 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.


Sister Helen Prejean

“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?


Kathryn Smith

Composer Heggie states it succinctly: “Works that still resonate are those dealing with some sort of social injustice.” But he is quick to reiterate what I had already heard from Smith and DeMain: “It’s not a lecture on the death penalty. It tells a compelling story that draws you in, and you are forced to participate. In every scene, life and death are at stake.” The earliest critics agreed. In New York magazine, Peter G. Davis wrote that Dead Man Walking “deals less with the politics of capital punishment than with personal issues of forgiveness, retribution and redemption.”

DeMain put it to me this way: “I think Dead Man works much the way I believe the ancient Greek tragedies affected contemporary audiences: It holds up a mirror to ourselves that forces us to look at the hard questions and make a personal response.”

The opera has enjoyed enough continued phenomenal success as to obscure the hugely unlikely genesis of its creation. Heggie’s day job in the 1990s was in the marketing department of San Francisco Opera, and, he says, “I was writing songs, nights and weekends.” Fortunately, some of those caught the attention of the stars who came to SFO; divas of the stature of Frederica von Stade and Renée Fleming began to program some of Heggie’s songs in recital. Then-general director Lotfi Mansouri began to think of a special new production for the millennium, and even though Heggie had no large-scale works of any kind to his credit, he asked the aspiring composer to meet with Terrence McNally. For his part, McNally was the celebrated playwright of works such as The Lisbon Traviata (with its opera link via Maria Callas) and Kiss of the Spider Woman, but he had never written a libretto.

Heggie had seen the film but now read the book for the first time. “I decided to read it once and internalize it; I wanted to honor the source, but then put it aside.”

While the film and book are both remarkable, what Heggie and McNally created transcends the movie and, even to some extent, Prejean’s original testament.


The opera is more about the spiritual journey of Joseph DeRocher, played by Michael Mayes, than about capital punishment.

Near the close of Act I, an ensemble develops with the four parents of the murder victims confronting Sister Helen and DeRocher’s mother. Just as Sister Helen had, in her focus on DeRocher’s redemption, “forgotten” about the parents’ feelings, we are thrust into this overlapping dynamic of contradictory emotions that each have their own legitimacy—and all of it is raised to a higher level of expression through Heggie’s searing music. Act II takes us even deeper into this emotional maelstrom, with much of the focus on Prejean’s struggle to personally forgive DeRocher, even as she battles to get him to admit his guilt.

Neither that climactic moment nor the execution can be quantified in the jolt transmitted to the audience, but Madison Opera is maximizing the impact of this opera with multiple and varied ancillary events, from film screenings to panel discussions and more. Under the umbrella “Extending the Stage,” these events both give operagoers an opportunity to enrich their experience of the performance, while offering many others a chance to get involved with the DMW experience.

Some events have already taken place, but there is still a Chazen Museum of Art docent-led tour, “Art as Social Comment,” on April 3 (with self-guided materials available throughout the month), free previews at the Madison Central and Sun Prairie libraries and Capitol Lakes Retirement Community, and screenings of films of related subject matter (Unlikely Friends and Race to Execution) at the Central and Fitchburg libraries. Full information is available at madisonopera.org.

But perhaps the next best thing to seeing DMW—or the perfect preparation for it—is the free event on April 24 at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational Church. There will be not only discussion with Prejean and Heggie, but then a performance of his song cycle, “The Deepest Desire,” set to Prejean’s poems that came about following a discussion between the two more than a year after DMW was up and running. Heggie will be at the keyboard for Susanne Mentzner, who will also appear as DeRocher’s mother in the opera.

Prejean recalls the conversation when she and Heggie shared a ride to an airport in Colorado. “Jake and I were kinda talking and all, and I was telling him about wrestling with things like how we determine how God’s will is manifested in our lives and how when we find it we discover that it resonates with the deepest desires of our heart. Jake asked, ‘Do you have any of that written down?’ Shortly after, I gave him the poems and he set them to this amazing music.”

Heggie adds, “I honestly think that 'The Deepest Desireis one of my best pieces, and a perfect complement to Dead Man Walking. Opera is a physical journey, and the things expressed in 'Deepest Desire' are impossible to express on the stage, but an internal personal journey can be explored in songs.”

But it is the fortunate four thousand or so filling Overture Hall over two nights who will in all likelihood travel an emotional path unlike any they’ve ever experienced in the opera house.

Prejean sums it up this way: “Everybody knows hurt. And we know about anger and the choice between getting even or seeking forgiveness, to choose a path that is not going to destroy you in the process. In the opera, everyone witnesses the murder at the beginning—we know DeRocher is guilty, and so the opera moves quickly into the big questions about love and hate and forgiveness. At the end of the opera, my story is the journey to Jesus, to the truth, but the audience is probably on the biggest journey of all, and it’s the music that brings you there. It ends with the hymn I’d been teaching the children, ‘He Will Gather Us Around,’ and I extend my arms to the audience, and each person has to finish the journey for themselves.”

Greg Hettmansberger covers classical music for Madison Magazine in his Classically Speaking blog



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