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Dead Man Walking at the Michigan Opera Theater

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Dead Man Walking at the Michigan Opera Theatre.

Well, I have heard the CD, read the libretto and now have seen the opera. It is a good show and worth a trip to the opera house if it plays near you. Dead Man Walking is not a great opera although it does have some great parts.

First the music. Jake Heggie, the composer, is known for doing music that singers like—he began his composing career writing songs while on the PR staff at the San Francisco Opera and was championed by Frederica von Stade, a member of the opera royalty. He also writes very well to the text. The words of the libretto were easy to understand. While the MOT used surtitles they generally were not necessary.

Music that singers are eager to sing is not necessarily great music, though. Heggie’s tone palette and harmonic language is reminiscent of some of the lesser works of Gershwin or Korngold. While his care to match music and words reminds one of Janacek, the actual music lacks almost everything that makes the Czech master a great composer.

Which is almost to be expected. This is Heggie’s first opera and he is still learning how to write for the lyric stage. A lot of hype has accompanied this work, but it is too slender to carry so many expectations. Almost no one gets all of it right the first time—few have gotten all of it right by the fourth or fifth opera. One hopes that Haggie will be able to continue to work on perfecting his art and refining his musical language.

The production at the Detroit Opera House seen Sunday, June 8 was well done by most of the principals. (One has to avoid using a term like “well executed” for this opera). Theodora Hanslowe portrayed Sister Helen Prajean. She is a lyric mezzo with flawless technique, a real nobility of utterance and a gleaming upper register. She has been a particular favorite in Washington D.C., appearing with the Washington Opera and in several other venues around the area. Ms. Hanslowe is an affecting actress and really dove into the role. Her character must make the audience believe that she believes in the unconditional love of God (and specifically Jesus Christ) and that this belief guides most of what she does.

Terrance McNally, the librettist, has created a role that singers love—sympathetic, evolving and with two big arias per act. The character of Joseph De Rocher is a much harder sell. There is no question that he is guilty of rape and murder—monstrous crimes committed almost casually. And he is not really an energetic villain—McNally and Heggie have tried to make him such, but since he is on death row he can’t act. But at the same time you are not happy when he is executed—it isn’t like watching Baron Scarpia choke on his own blood in Tosca or seeing Pizzaro being led away in Fidelio. The character doesn’t really resonate, although John Packard who originated the role, does everything he can with it.

The real story is expressed by one of the parents of the two murdered teenagers, who says to Sister Prajean at one point “We are all victims of Joseph De Rocher.” While it seems trite, it expresses the emotional center of this work.

The design is wonderfully done. Most the activity takes place on a raked platform on the stage with cutout steps facing the audience. The playing space is divided by chain link fences, bars and barbed wire units that are lowered from the flies as necessary for scene changes. A few pieces—tables, chairs—are carried out and put in place by extras dressed as prison guards. It is an ingenious design and one that serves this work very well.

The opera begins with full nudity—not the bodystockinged prurience of the Bacchanal in Samson and Delilah or the “now you see it now you don’t” Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome. The young couple who are murdered have parked and were swimming nude in a lake. They are on a blanket, with the actor and actress engaged in quite tasteful simulated sex—kind of simulated simulated sex—when the De Rochers appear. There is no question that both of them are guilty of murder—each of them kills one person—but one of the ethical questions the opera raises concerns the difference in punishment. According to Joseph De Rocher, his brother got a life sentence because he was assigned a better lawyer. Joseph is on death row because he was assigned a less skilled one.

There is more to this work than I can summarize here—I may well see it again during its run here in Detroit. Unfortunately, it looks like seats will not be hard to get. The audience at today’s performance was one of the smallest I can recall for a Sunday matinee at the Detroit Opera House.

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