Sister Helen Prejean (Daniela Mack) prays for the soul of Joseph DeRocher (Michael Mayes), who has murdered two teenagers.
The Madison Opera production of Jake Heggie's much-admired opera Dead Man Walking is the apex of the 2013-14 season and a landmark in the company's history of successful boldness. The second and final performance takes place at Overture Hall on Sunday, April 27, at 2:30 p.m.
The performances themselves crown a remarkable promotional campaign that not only has sought to woo a public that might be wary of a "contemporary" opera but draw the public into a serious conversation about a deeply divisive issue of our society: capital punishment.
The opera is based on the book by Sister Helen Prejea, tracing the beginnings of her programs of compassionate engagement with convicted criminals on death row and her challenges to the death penalty. Tim Robbins adapted the book into a distinguished movie starring Susan Sarandon as the nun and author.
The opera, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, uses a particularly powerful libretto by Terrence McNally, as set by Heggie. Madison Opera's conductor, John DeMain, has been connected with the opera for a long time, and with the composer, making the presentation of it in Madison a mission of sorts. In this he was joined by the company's director, Kathryn Smith.
The events leading up to the Madison Opera production included a week of public lectures and panel discussions. But their climax was a particular coup pulled by the company's part, in having not only Heggie but also Sister Helen come to Madison for the project. The two, by now not only friends but also a seasoned team of presentation partners, made a public appearance before a capacity house at the First Congregational Church on Thursday, April 24. They were even willing to stay after the opening-night performance to answer questions from the audience.
These preparatory offerings gave added depth to the social and moral messages of the opera, but also to its very moving drama. For this is really the story of Sister Helen's groping her way into what would become the great mission of her life, through her attempts to bring a convict -- who, in McNally's treatment of the story, is named Joseph DeRocher -- to accept responsibility for the horrendous murder of two teenagers, as well as a rape, crimes we see perpetrated at the beginning of the production.
Aided by McNally's probing libretto, Heggie has wrought a propulsive and compelling score, remarkable considering that it was his first opera. An experienced composer of art songs, he has given the singers vocal lines both challenging and full of expressive potential. Touches of popular music and of a bit of gospel singing evoke the context without cheapness, and his very fine command of orchestral writing makes that element a forceful yet integrated dimension all its own.
The opera is presented in a production brought to Madison from the Fort Worth Opera. Its set, stark and simple, uses constantly shifting sections of jail bars to convey the grim relentlessness of a Louisiana prison. This setting is exploited deftly by stage director Kristine McIntyre. Under DeMain's knowing direction, the orchestra makes a very strong contribution to the totality.
And the cast is extraordinary. There are two dozen named roles, all of them portrayed with convincing artistry. Parents of the two slain teenagers are played by familiar locals Saira Frank and Jamie Van Eyck, as well as J. Adam Shelton, who portrays a deeply conflicted father. The heartrending role of the convict's anguished mother, Mrs. DeRocher, was created by the great Frederica von Stade, but Susanne Mentzer makes it very much her own. Karen Slack is endearing as Sister Rose, the heroine's warmhearted friend and counselor.
Of course, it is the two protagonists who are central to any production. Daniela Mack is more of a soprano than a mezzo-soprano, as the role of Sister Helen was first projected. But her strong and steady voice soars over the orchestra to capture the heroine's mixture of fragility and conviction. And Michael Mayes is astounding as the blustering but inwardly ravaged DeRocher. The interaction of these two singers, both vocally and theatrically, is extraordinary.
Dead Man Walking is one of the epochal operas of our time, engaging us in a grave moral issue while also offering a shattering theatrical experience. It is amazing that Madison Opera has been able to bring together a production so consistently excellent. It is one that will long linger in the memories of the Madison audiences.