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Dead Man Walking (the opera)


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#1 Farrell Fan

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Posted 14 September 2002 - 01:41 PM

This work had its premiere two years ago in San Francisco and has subsequently been performed by Opera Pacific and Cincinnati Opera. Last night it came to New York City Opera.

There was a time not long ago when new operas were atonal, scarcely singable, and generally unlistenable. That time is mostly gone. To me, Dead Man Walking sounded like turn-of-the-20th-century verismo. Jake Heggie, the composer, seems a musical relative of Giordano and Zandonai. The Lord's Prayer which accompanies Joe De Rocher's "last mile" made me think of the Te Deum in the first act of Puccini's Tosca.

The opera derives from the book and movie of the same name. It takes a somewhat different approach to the material. I didn't read Sister Helen Prejean's book, but the very-good movie amounted to an impassioned plea against capital punishment. By contrast, the opera's principal theme is forgiveness. Can Joe find forgiveness? The parents of the two teenagers he brutally murdered can't forgive him. Can Sister Helen? Can God? Can Joe forgive himself?

The libretto is by Terence McNally, the well-known playwright and Opera Quiz panelist. The program notes credit him with inventing an episode in which Helen and Joe share youthful memories of Elvis Presley (to an appropriate musical accompaniment). "McNally wanted to find a moment in which Joe could manage to view Helen not as a nun, but simply as a fellow human being--and a friend," says the program. I found the moment gratuitous and unbelievable. I also found the southern accents of the cast, particularly Joe's, very annoying. At times Dead Man Walking sounded like a performance of Porgy and Bess.

Accents aside, the cast was uniformly excellent -- Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen, John Packard as Joe, Sheryl Woods as Joe's mother, Adina Aaron as Helen's friend, Sister Rose. The conductor was John DeMain. Packard not only sang well, he performed an extraordinary number of pushups. After the gruesome murders of the opening scene, the next scene featured a rousing, gospel-type number at the school where Helen taught. Later on, there was a real operatic sextet, with Helen, Joe's mother, and the four parents of the victims.

It looked like everyone involved in the production came out for bows after the performance, including, of course, Heggie and McNally. The audience applauded long and lustily.

#2 Ed Waffle

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Posted 14 September 2002 - 06:49 PM

Originally posted by Farrell Fan


There was a time not long ago when new operas were atonal, scarcely singable, and generally unlistenable. That time is mostly gone. To me, Dead Man Walking sounded like turn-of-the-20th-century verismo. Jake Heggie, the composer, seems a musical relative of Giordano and Zandonai. The Lord's Prayer which accompanies Joe De Rocher's "last mile" made me think of the Te Deum in the first act of Puccini's Tosca.


Dead Man Walking may be the work that so many have been waiting for, the long-hoped for work, the contemporary
American opera that would stand as a masterpiece in its entirety.

One indication of this is its acceptance throughout the operatic world. While it will take years to determine if DMW will become part of the rep, the signs are good. It is being produced at provincal houses over the next few years, including here in Motown next spring. The number and frequency of productions seems to be increasing--unlike, for example Andre Previn's Streetcar Named Desire, a work a really like, but which has (temporarily one hopes) dropped off the radar screen after a successful and star-studded premiere and a few follow on productions. One of the important things about Dead Man Walking is that it does not depend on star power to be successful.

Your point concerning the melodic accessibility is very telling. One thing that most great operas have is great tunes. Puccini knew it, So did Wagner, Verdi, Mozart, etc. An audience member that can leave the theater with a tune in her head--or even better on her lips--is one who may well recommend that opera. After a spate of self-consciously (or self-importantly) unmelodic works for the lyric stage, composers may be going back to beautiful music for a bit.

Thanks for the insightful review--I look forward to catching the Michigan Opera Theatre production next spring.

#3 Leigh Witchel

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Posted 14 September 2002 - 11:02 PM

Thanks for the reporting and the buzz. You've piqued my interest - here's the NY City Opera Calendar page for those wanting to go and see it: http://www.nycopera....n/calendar.html

#4 LMCtech

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Posted 16 September 2002 - 12:18 PM

How was Joyce? I worked with her when she did the Merola Opera Program in San Francisco several years ago. I'm excited to see she is singing such an exciting role.

I agree this is an important work. I look forward to Heggie's next works.

I wonder if he'll ever score anything for a ballet.

#5 Farrell Fan

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Posted 16 September 2002 - 01:37 PM

She was excellent. In today's New York Times, the reviewer Anthony Tommasini wrote: "In her City Opera debut, the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen sang impressively and conveyed both the character's inner doubts and quiet strengths." He praised all the singers and the production. But he didn't care much for the opera.

Where I heard suggestions of Italian verismo, he said "Echoes of Barber, Copland, Gershwin and especially Bernstein are too close to the surface. The vernacular music Mr. Heggie composes is quite tame, like the gospel tune that Sister Helen teaches the children at Hope House, the school she runs. Stronger composers evoke vernacular song and dance by adding some contemporary twists of their own."

Of the end of the opera, Tommasini writes, "In the death chamber De Rocher is hooked up to the drugs that will kill him in total silence. Then we hear just the ticks of his heartbeat, and the flat line when he dies. Sister Helen, unaccompanied, sings a refrain of the gospel song. Lights out. The idea, clearly, was that at this moment music would add nothing. But it comes across as if he had no idea of what else to do." He concludes his review, "Opera is a form of theater that has always been driven by music. However appealing, Mr. Heggie's music is just not strong enough to take on this complex story."

I don't agree, and Tommasini is very fair in pointing out that "As at the premiere, the audience responded with an enthusiastic standing ovation."

#6 Watermill

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Posted 16 September 2002 - 07:35 PM

Has this been recorded yet? Would love to hear it.

#7 Ed Waffle

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Posted 16 September 2002 - 07:55 PM

Yes it has been recorded--I happen to be listening to it today.

It is on Erato, live recording from San Francisco Opera. I plan to post my thought about this recording soon, but in a nutshell, this is an excellent recording of an excellent opera.

Very well cast--Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, Nicolle Foland.

#8 LMCtech

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Posted 17 September 2002 - 03:30 PM

Though I didn't get to see it, I have a friend who works for the SF Opera (and gets comps) who bought tickets to Dead Man Walking so he could see it again. He's never done that for any other opera he's worked on.


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