Opera in two acts. Music by Jake Heggie. Libretto by Terrence McNally. After a novel by Sister Helen Prejean. Performed in English with German surtitles
Music by Jake Heggie, libretto by Terence McNally. Based on the novel by Sister Helen Prejean. Work commissioned by the San Francisco Opera. »Thou shalt not kill« – of the fragility of a commandment.
»Dead man walking« is what guards and inmates in American prisons call out when a condemned man makes his way towards the execution chamber. As is the case for the multiple award-winning 1995 movie of the same name starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, the opera is based on the experiences of Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean, who served as spiritual adviser to several death-row inmates.
Without really knowing what she is getting into, Sister Helen begins a letter-writing friendship with Joseph de Rocher, a rapist and murderer of two young people, and thus enters a test of endurance that puts her faith – and thus the design of the entire world – into question. Contrasting the brutal death of the victims and the suffering of their families, for which nothing can be done to alleviate it, is the discovery of the human side of the murderer and the confrontation with the cynicism of the execution procedure. At the end of a torturous process of cognition, de Rocher assumes responsibility for his deeds.
Above and beyond the discussion about the legitimacy of the death penalty, the work also raises questions about dealing with guilt, revenge and forgiveness.
Terence McNally is a writer who is as successful as he is controversial. Known in Germany primarily due to his Maria Callas drama »Master Class« (1995), McNally prefers to explore burning social issues, such as dealing with homosexuality and AIDS.
The composition, which has a strong European tradition, refers to forms such as arias and ensembles, but also blues and gospel; it was written by Florida native Jake Heggie. It develops a powerful suggestive force, thus permitting an emotional approach to the sensitive subject of the death penalty. The world premiere in 2000 in San Francisco was followed by productions in Cincinnati, New York, Austin and Michigan.
Avoiding simple answers, »Dead Man Walking« is a deeply moving attempt to use the genus of opera, often viewed as being antiquated, to react to burning questions of the times.