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Dead Man Walking

Revisited

 

Opera and the death penalty make such an unlikely combination that when San Francisco Opera commissioned a new production based on this controversial and divisive subject, skeptics raised their eyebrows. Sure, it worked in the movies, and earned an Oscar for actress Susan Sarandon. But would it work for opera?

In October of the 2000-2001 season, skeptics got their answer - a resounding YES! The opera played to a full house; audiences were moved by the performances of the all-star cast and by Jake Heggie's vital and lyrical music. Clearly, General Director Lotfi Mansouri's courage paid off.

The surest sign of success yet: the opera's first staging is not its last. In April of the 2001-2002 season, "Dead Man Walking" gets to walk on a different stage - at Opera Pacific in Southern California, spared the usual fate of many a new opera. It will receive its East Coast premiere in the Fall of 2002 at the NY City Opera with Joyce DiDonato in the lead role of Sister Helen Prejean.



On January 14, 2002 a new documentary played on national public television. It tells the inside story of "Dead Man Walking" - from playwright Terence McNally's first written page (he wrote the libretto) to its realization on the stage and all that went on behind it. Some of the most interesting stories are told by the members of the cast who took great pains to prepare themselves emotionally for their roles. Tenor John Packard, for example, did not only rely on books, documentaries and interviews; he visited Death Row in Louisiana's Angola Prison. Indeed, it is not easy to get inside the skin of a convicted prisoner facing the death sentence for a crime committed in our own time and place; neither is it easy to get into the minds of the people caught in the web of the crime, the reality of which can be overwhelming. Viewers are able to get a peek at the rehearsal sessions and observe the singers, the stage director and the music director working together in an act of creation as they breathe life into the characters of the drama and give voice to the music for the very first time. Viewers also get to hear all sides of the capital punishment debate - through interviews with real people seeking either compassion (such as Sister Helen Prejean herself and convicts' families) , or justice (such as the families victims have left behind).


And since this is opera - what about the music? It is not left out in this compelling documentary. In hearing big chunks of it, one gets to hear some of America's most beautiful voices articulating the human complexities of crime and punishment and contemplating the blessings of forgiveness and redemption. The success of the opera shows that this most unrealistic of art forms can have an impact on the way people think about burning contemporary issues in a way no other medium can.

The documentary, produced by KQED of San Francisco, premiered January 14, 2000 at 10 pm. Check local listings. A live recording of the opera has recently been released by Erato Records.


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