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A few notes on “Dead Man Walking”, an Erato recording of the San Francisco Opera premier performance.

“Dead Man Walking” is lyric theater composed in a tonal, accessible style with recognizable melodies and antecedents in a number of works.

Hegge is a song composer—he is not yet a great orchestrator, and possibly will not be. Many opera composers were not.

Above all, Heggie writes easily for the voice and his music contains other styles, including gospel, blues, jazz under some of the scenes. These styles, easily woven into his score, are almost always dramatically true. He doesn’t go for the cheap effect.

Regarding influences, I heard less of Puccini, Giordano or other verismo composers and more of Gershwin and Menotti—it sounds very American. This is always problematic, of course, trying to decide what sounds like what else. Without a score of the “Dead Man Walking”, which I don’t have, scores of the works it is compared with, most of which I don’t have, and the training to closely read and compare scores, also missing, it is simply “This sounds like what I remember something else sounding like.”

There are two musical phrases that stick in my mind. One is the very short prelude to Act II. This is a very “Puccinian” moment, although I can’t identify from exactly where.

The other is on track 2 of the second disc, beginning at the one minute ten second point. There is a piano cadence that reinforces a guard and de Rocher declaiming their text. Again I am unable to place it, but it sounds like something I have heard, this time in American opera. It is repeated a few times in Act II, and may be a leitmotif for either Joseph de Rocher or one aspect of his personality.

The libretto by Terrence McNally is not always profound or inspired, but music and words fit very well and it caries the burden of a complex story. It is quite moving where it needs to be. There was obvious collaboration between two talented artists.

Two of the main female roles, Sister Helen Prejean and Mrs. Patrick De Rocher were written for mezzo-soprano. This makes sense on several levels—Frederica von Stade, who created Mrs. de Rocher, is a long time collaborator with Hegge. Also (and possibly more importantly) there are a LOT of excellent mezzos in their 30s and 40s, so it will be easy to cast, at least for the next few decades.

Susan Graham, as Sister Helen, is terrific. The role seems to lie largely in her upper-middle voice and she handled it with a most impressive control and breath support. She has a rich, burnished voice that moves easily from long stretches of declamation to the several ariosos she is given. While the other characters are important (and were cast accordingly on this CD) it ultimately depends on Sister Helen.

Her duet with Sister Rose, “Sometimes forgiveness is in the smallest gesture” is beautifully done. Both Graham and Theresa Hamm-Smith project both the words and music of this haunting set piece. It may become one of the signature pieces from the opera. I could see it included in mezzo and soprano duet recording for centuries. The poetry here is McNally at his best, which is very good indeed.

Possibly more later—this is report is based on listening to the entire work straight through twice, once following the libretto and once with the libretto, plus listening to several pieces several times. There is much more to like about DMW than I have recounted here. I look forward to seeing it in the theater.

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I can't really compare Hegge with Adams or Broadway shows. John Adams neatly fits into one of the huge gaps in my musical knowledge. I have heard (not really listened to) "Nixon in China" a few times and want to revisit it. "The Death of Klinghoeffer" may remain on my "when I get around to it" list until I can no longer get around. I have it once.

Regarding Broadway shows, I don't really study them. For me they are straight entertainment, and only in the theater. We go to the show, hum the tunes on the way out, talk about the technical coups and basically forget about it. I don't listen of Broadway shows otherwise.

A note regarding listening to opera recordings.

This is not something that most people enjoy, and for good reasons. There is a significant investment of time and energy (both of which are always in short supply, of course) and the return on this investment is not always that great.

When encountering a new opera (like DMW) I listen at least once straight through, without the libretto (whatever the language) and once with it. Then I start again, trying to make notes of especially good (or banal) parts, what sounds like what else, where influences may be detected, etc. At this point I listen with the score--I don't always have one, but often do--and try to figure out why the really moving pieces are so affecting. Listening to different recordings is also important

Using the score is very effective on concerted pieces--quick harmonies in a quartet that are just glanced at but can send a chill down one's spine become clear, for example, and the genius of the composer shines through.

In the case of DMW, I don't have a score. It would probably cost a prince's ransom. Also, there is only one recording. I decided to dive into it (will be listening more over the weekend) based on FarellFans's excellent review and that it is being programmed here in Motown next spring.

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