By Bryson David Hoff
Medium is something that perhaps doesn’t get discussed enough when examining art. For instance, when patrons go to see a movie they probably don’t ever find themselves questioning why the story that they are consuming is being presented through the format of film or, as a corollary, how the experience might be different if the same story were being told as a play, novel, television series, comic book or audio drama.
As a result, the very notion of adapting a seminal piece of nonfiction writing like Sister Helen Prejean’s memoir Dead Man Walking, already well-known because of its adaptation into an Academy Award-winning film, into an opera? It sounds, on its surface, a bit absurd. The story has already been told. And very successfully at that. What could transposing it into such a stylized form possibly have to offer?
The answer is a truly transcendent artistic experience that not only reminds the audience of why the story is worth telling in the first place, but also of why opera as a medium remains a worthy and vital mode of storytelling.
For those who are unaware, the plot of Composer Jake Heggie‘s and Librettist-Playwright Terrence McNally‘s in-English opera follows Prejean (soprano Patricia Racette), a Louisiana nun who becomes the pen pal and later spiritual advisor to death row inmate Joe De Rocher (bass-baritone Ryan McKinny), who is awaiting execution for the double murder of a young teenage couple. Prejean quickly finds herself overwhelmed as she finds herself more and more embroiled in Joe’s ordeal, coming into conflict with both the parents of his victims, and her charge himself as he continues to deny his guilt.
Make no mistake about it; the opera is not a comfortable sit. While the opening scene, showing the crime that sets the rest of the plot in motion, is upsetting for all the reasons one would expect given its subject matter, the most draining aspect of the piece is the manner in which the operatic form allows the complex emotions of the central characters to be fully and explicitly explored. The best example is perhaps the scene of De Rocher’s final appeal, which gives an extended quartet to the victims’ parents (Wayne Tigges, Lauren Decker, Talise Trevigne, and Allan Glassman) that is stark and heart-wrenchingly specific in its lyrics.
The performers carry it off excellently and, while the production has many moments of transcendent artistry both before and after this scene, this scene epitomizes how the medium of opera allows for this story’s themes to be explored with a depth that simply cannot be matched by a visual medium like film. Opera allows patron an access to the characters’ inner lives that simply cannot be matched.
The leads, Racette and McKinny, are in top form. Racette’s Prejean is alternately wry, worldly, vulnerable and profoundly kind. The real trick, accomplished via collaboration between the writers and the singer, is that she does not ever come off as idealized or larger-than-life. The fact that Prejean is a real person is never far from the audience’s mind and her representation on the stage does not feel in any way propagandized. For McKinny’s part, his De Rocher is dark, desperate, volatile, and beautifully sung. The physicality of his performance is something rare to behold on the Lyric stage and it really sells the unflinching portrait that libretto seeks to paint.
It is not a secret that opera is a struggling art form. Its fan base is aging and the prevailing contemporary opinion is that it has little to say that is new or relevant to modern culture. Judging from both the reactions in the theatre and snippets of discussion overheard from members of the opening night audience for Dead Man Walking on the way out the doors of the Civic Opera House afterwards, this view does not seem to hold water.
Vital, gripping, and transcendent opera is still being written in the 21st century. It simply needs to be allowed to find its audience. It is commendable to see the Lyric Opera taking strides to use its platform as one of the most successful opera companies in the country to proliferate more contemporary works. One can only hope that the audience will show up, giving the company reason to present more works like Dead Man Walking.
The Lyric Opera of Chicago presents Dead Man Walking through November 22. More information and tickets are available here. First photo by Andrew Cioffi; all others by Ken Howard.