When Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun known for her work to abolish the death penalty, learned that the San Francisco Opera wanted Jake Heggie to create an opera based on her book Dead Man Walking, she had to learn more about the composer. So she called him up.
Heggie reenacts Prejean's part in the conversation.
"Of course we're making an opera about Dead Man Walking, but Jake, I have to tell you, I don't know boo-scat about opera, so you're gonna have to educate me. Now you don't write this atonal stuff, do you? I mean, we're gonna have a tune every now and then, right?"
The composer was charmed by this lively woman.
"We've been close ever since," he says.
To answer Prejean's question, there are plenty of lovely tunes in Dead Man, but they're just part of its appeal. The work also follows her journey as a spiritual adviser to death-row inmates. Madison Opera will present the Upper Midwest premiere of the opera on April 25 and 27 in Overture Hall.
Dead Man was Prejean's first book, Heggie's first opera score and the first foray into opera for renowned playwright and librettist Terrence McNally. Heggie discovered Dead Man through McNally, and was immediately drawn to the story.
"I felt deeply inspired and moved by the story right away," Heggie says. "It felt timely and timeless, very American but universal, and it is about something that matters deeply."
He began work on the opera in March of 1998, and it premiered at the San Francisco Opera in October of 2000.
It is one of few operas to garner accolades on its opening night.
"What you usually hear about a new opera is, 'It's not Puccini,'" says Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera's general director. "But Dead Man Walking premiered to rave reviews, and it's one of the most critically acclaimed works in the repertoire. When I saw it at the New York City Opera in 2002, it blew me away."
Coincidentally, that New York performance was conducted by John DeMain, music director and conductor of the Madison Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Madison Opera.
DeMain and the MSO will guide Madison audiences through the opera's murky death-row landscape, eventually reaching an enlightening finale.
"John DeMain is one of the real heroes of this opera," Heggie says. "[Conductor] Patrick Summers led the premiere, but then John led several of the next productions: in Costa Mesa, New York, South Australia and more. I learned a lot about the opera from hearing how John conducted it...I'm thrilled beyond words that he is leading it in Madison."
Familiar musical genres -- jazz, rock, pop, gospel and folk -- make the opera distinctively American, but it also honors the passionate arias and lush harmonies of European grand opera. The story, however, takes center stage. It focuses on the spiritual transformations of convicted murderer Joseph DeRocher and Sister Helen, a Catholic nun who teaches high school dropouts at Hope House. Much of the action takes place in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola in the 1980s.
The opera begins with the brutal crimes that put Joseph on death row: the rape of a teenage girl and the murder of the girl and her boyfriend. Joseph is the culprit, along with his brother Anthony, who later gets a life sentence.
Tensions run high throughout the opera. The murdered teens' parents want Joseph dead. The final proceedings before the pardon board are rife with conflict between the grieving parents and Joseph's mother (mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer), who pleads for his life in a touching aria. But no amount of pleading can save him. An execution date is set. As the drama mounts, Sister Helen shows kindness and concern for the young criminal.
Inside a murderer's mind
Heggie says Joseph was the most challenging character to set to music because he seems so unlikable. He had to put aside those feelings to get to the truth of the character.
Joseph is actually a composite of several inmates Prejean has ministered to on death row. He is the dead man walking, prisoner number 95281, a 29-year-old Caucasian male. He's quiet and hard to read. Baritone Michael Mayes, who will play the role at Overture, is the person who comes closest to understanding this character -- other than Prejean, of course. Mayes took a break from Boston Lyric Opera's Rigoletto to describe his terrifying journey into Joseph's psyche.
"When I began developing my version of Joseph, I couldn't help but be put in the minds of the young men I grew up around in rural east Texas, not far from where [he] would have been raised," Mayes says. "At different stages of my life, these kinds of men were heroes and villains, to be extolled and reviled, feared and loved...at once cruel and incredibly magnanimous. I wanted my version of Joseph to inhabit, and even magnify, the strange dichotomy that made up these incredibly complex figures of my youth, many of whom share similar fates to Joseph."
Mayes learned something about himself as he got to know Joseph.
"The fascinating and sometimes frightening realization for me was that but for a few decisions made early on in my life, my path could have taken me right to...where Joseph ended [up]," he says.
To help immerse himself in Joseph's mind, Mayes adopted a scruffy look. He shaved his head and wore a beard as he walked through suburban Tulsa, preparing for the role. Along the way, he noted other people's reactions to his new appearance and mannerisms.
"I became incredibly sensitive to the looks of disdain, repulsion, pity, fear," he recalls. "Waves of recognition washed over me, memories of what it was like to be that poor white kid among the well-to-do...It dawned on me that this is what men like Joseph endure their entire lives: societal disdain. It tires you as you struggle against it and eventually you give in to your role as an outcast. It begins to feed you, drive you; you seek it out," he says.
Mayes became painfully aware of how an environment rife with judgment can shape a person's perceptions and actions.
"The more you separate yourself from 'them,' the better, and if you ever get a chance to punish one of them, you jump on it like a starving man on a piece of bread," he says. "This is the emotional and psychological [situation] that gives birth to the kind of man that is capable of the horrific crimes that Joseph has committed."
Mayes says the emotional intensity of the role gets to him sometimes. When that happens, maintaining good vocal control is challenging. But Heggie anticipated this.
"Jake writes for the voice so well," Mayes says. "The way he sets text is so natural that he does much of the work for us."
Mayes will sing opposite mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, who plays Sister Helen. Mack also starred in Madison Opera's 2012 production of Cinderella. She is excited about her role in Dead Man.
"The opportunity to portray such a remarkable and living person does not come along very often," she says. "As a lyric mezzo-soprano, many of my roles are young boys, young men or ingÃ©nue love-struck young women. Sister Helen is a wonderful departure from that."
Sister Helen is more transparent than Joseph, but her life gets complicated as she tries to discern the truth.
"She feels immense responsibility to her community as well as the inmates," Mack explains. "Her journey from the opening notes to the final note -- both sung by her -- is incredibly emotionally charged."
Bringing Dead Man to life offstage
Beyond the opera world, Prejean's journey continues. She still ministers to death-row inmates, their families and the families of the victims. She also spends much of her time on the road, giving talks and participating in activities she hopes will help abolish the death penalty. On April 24, three days after her 75th birthday, she and Heggie will speak at First Congregational Church as part of Madison Opera's Extending the Stage program.
Prejean will discuss an idea that recurs in her books and lectures: If people truly knew about the gruesome machinations and injustices of the capital punishment system, and how this system works against African Americans and poor whites like Joseph, they would oppose the death penalty. So Prejean goes wherever the opera is and speaks to audiences about this issue. She is a woman of extraordinary energy and determination.
Though frequent opera-goers are somewhat accustomed to seeing executions, suicides and murders acted out on stage, Dead Man has a powerful impact. Prejean says this is because they get to know and sympathize with the characters.
"It brings us deeper into the suffering of the perpetrator and his family, and the family of the victims," she says. "It brings us closer to an actual execution."
In many operas, there is a voice of wisdom that keeps the lead characters on the right path and warns them when they stray from it. In Dead Man, this is the voice of Sister Helen's co-worker Sister Rose (Karen Slack). At a crucial point in the second act, she asks Sister Helen if she has truly forgiven Joseph. At first Sister Helen says she has, but then she realizes that she's not sure. At that point, the audience can see that the true focus of the opera is forgiveness. The death penalty is part of the scenery.
Whether we can forgive Joseph depends on who we think he is. The prison chaplain thinks he's an unredeemable con artist, the parents of the dead teenagers think he's a monster, Sister Helen thinks he's a child of God gone horribly astray, and Mrs. DeRocher thinks he's still her Joey.
As the opera draws to a close, Mayes will reveal his answer.
"In one scene, you see layers of a lifetime of filth fall away. There, before our eyes, is a helpless child, the now fallen and rotten apple of some mother's eye, confused, scared and oblivious as to how he ended up where he is."