a PBS documentary
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 was not its last. In April of the 2001-2002 season, DEAD MAN WALKING walked on to a different stage – at OPERA PACIFIC in Southern California, clearly spared the usual fate of many a new opera. It received 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 told the inside story of DEAD MAN WALKING – from playwright Terrence 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 were 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. Through this film, 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 breathed life into the characters of the drama and gave 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 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.
Note: Since its world premiere, DEAD MAN WALKING has proved to be one of the most successful of modern-day operas, having seen numerous productions in many countries. See DMW: Just the FACTS