“There are very few places, it seems to me, where people go to reflect as a community… The opera house, or the concert hall, is one of those sacred spaces where you go to connect and communicate with each other as a community,” reflected composer Jake Heggie during a panel about his opera, Dead Man Walking, at Lyric Opera of Chicago. Heggie, who composed the opera with librettist Terrence McNally, shared the stage with Sister Helen Prejean, whose Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir of the same name was the inspiration for the opera.
WFMT general manager George Preston, who moderated the panel, describes that the opera was a "turning point in contemporary opera" when it premiered nearly 20 years ago. He explains, "I think it marked a point of resurgence in new opera, the public's interest in new opera, and producers willing to take a risk on new opera."
Now, after nearly 70 productions, the trailblazing Dead Man Walking will have its Lyric Opera premiere next month, with a cast featuring Patricia Racette as Sister Helen Prejean, Susan Graham (who created the role of Sister Helen in the opera's 2000 premiere) as Mrs. De Rocher, and, in his Lyric debut, Ryan McKinny as Joseph De Rocher.
The opera, like the film of the same name, recounts Sister Helen's time working as a spiritual adviser for convicts on death row. It's a weighty subject matter, but George Preston thinks that's part of why the opera has been so successful: "capital punishment is an issue that is so topical, and yet one that few people consider deeply... Sister Helen Prejean, Jake Heggie, and Terrence McNally have made something that can get a couple thousand people in the same room at the same time to really come to grips with this issue. From that standpoint," he adds, "it was very exciting to talk with people who have actually, through a work of art, moved the needle on getting people to think about a very difficult topic."
If you missed the panel at Lyric Opera of Chicago, you're not out of luck. You can see Lyric's recording of the full discussion below.
Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally has its Lyric premiere on November 2, and continues until November 22. For more information, visit lyricopera.org.