06/23/2014 10:39 am ET Updated Aug 23, 2014

The Intersection of Murder, Art, and Opera

I have been reading with interest the many articles and comments about the controversial decision by Peter Gelb of the Metropolitan Opera to cancel the worldwide simulcast of John Adams' opera The Death of Klinghoffer because of pressure from the Anti-Defamation League regarding their concern about antisemitism worldwide. But it's not because I have a particular connection with Adams' opera, which I've never seen -- it's because I'm currently working on an opera which is also based on a murder case from the 1980s and which also portrays the murderer with some level of humanity, which happens to be one of the complaints about Klinghoffer.

I'm in the mountains of Colorado, rehearsing the role of Sister Helen Prejean in a new production of Dead Man Walking with Central City Opera. The opera is based on the book by the same title by the real Sister Helen, which was also made into an Oscar-winning movie. The Opera has had dozens of new productions since its inception in 2000, and with good reason. The gripping libretto by Terrence McNally combined with Jake Heggie's haunting score is as thought provoking as it is touching. It masterfully captures the journey that Sister Helen faced when she began counseling prisoners on Death Row, as well as presenting all the sides of what it actually means for a government to execute its citizens. And in the character of Joseph de Rocher (a fictionalized amalgamation of more than one prisoner that Sister Helen actually counseled) we meet a rapist and murderer who is also a human being who loves his mother, and who eventually experiences a form of redemption before his death. But the drama shares something with Adams' Klinghoffer in that not only is it based on actual recent events, it portrays many sides to all the characters -- even the people who were capable of great evil. After all, "we're all born innocent children" Sister Helen points out when questioned about her desire to counsel someone capable of such heinous acts.

I understand why people might initially object to both Klinghoffer and even Dead Man, especially groups or individuals who have been the victims of hatred, violence, or oppression. I know that when I was learning the score to Dead Man, I couldn't get through a lot of the scenes initially because things started happening to me -- I would get stomach aches, and I even broke out in hives at one point. As the mother of child, I had a very difficult time not putting myself in the mindset of the parents of the victims, who are painfully portrayed in the opera as unable and unwilling to understand Sister Helen's desire to counsel the man responsible for robbing them of their children. And while I needed to relate to Sister Helen, I found myself instead relating to the parents. I did see the humanity in the character of the killer, and I understood Sister Helen's many valid points about the fact that she believes that we should not kill our fellow man under any circumstances. And yet, I was actually having physical manifestations of upset while living with this material, and I was not even involved in the actual events in any way, I knew they had been fictionalized, and I was clinically learning notes and rhythms and not even experiencing the opera in its full form. No wonder the opera has had such success if the words and music have the power to make me sick just from studying them.

A piece of art will affect different people in different ways. And opera, which has the ability to bring drama to an extremely deep and soulful place using the power of music and unamplified singing, is no stranger to controversy. But the question is; when some people find a piece of art offensive while others find it deeply humanizing and moving, who is right? I've never seen Klinghoffer, but a lot of people I know, including some Jewish people, did not find the work anti-Semitic when they saw it. So whose opinion should win out in an argument like this one?

First, I do think it's important for people who protest any piece of art to first experience it fully. The head of the Anti-Defamation League who was putting pressure on Mr. Gelb to cancel the production has said that he has never seen the work. Just looking at the libretto -- especially excerpted sections -- is not the same thing as experiencing the opera in an actual production, because as I've pointed out many times in my writing, opera is about many artistic elements coming together. If upon seeing the work in a fully staged production, someone still finds it deeply offensive, they are certainly entitled to their opinion and may act accordingly. However, since art is meant to provoke thought and create discussions, I'm not sure that preventing it from being seen and heard will actually do anything to prevent hatred and bigotry. My director here in Central City, Ken Cazan told me a story about a church group who chose to picket outside the theater of Faust he was directing based on an image being used on one of the publicity posters. The opera company, quite thoughtfully, invited them to come in and watch the dress rehearsal to see what was actually going on, and the head protester appeared in tears to Ken after the final scene because he was so moved by the redemption portrayed. The picketing ended there. You never know how art will affect you until you allow yourself to experience it fully.

In studying my role in Dead Man, I've read and watched a lot of Sister Helen in addition to living with her character and thinking about her constantly. And one of the most important lessons I've taken away thus far from her teachings is that the thing that connects us all, no matter what, is our basic humanity. The main reason Sister Helen advocates to abolish the death penalty is that that all human beings are connected by their humanity and deserve dignity -- even murderers have mothers, she points out -- and therefore, we should not, under any circumstances kill our fellow man. The basic connection of all human beings is the very reason I feel music is such a powerful tool - I think it connects us on all on an intrinsic, subconscious level that we can't always explain in words. So the combination of this message through the tool of music is indeed a very powerful one.

Which brings me back, finally, to The Death of Klinghoffer. I am not writing this article to come down on one side of the other about whether it should be performed or telecast. What I wish to do is point out that any piece of art which seeks to find the humanity in horrible situations is something that could have the power to affect positive change. Because what our society needs more of is compassion, understanding, and openness to change. Music is certainly an incredible tool to bring this message to people. I know, for me, the humanity of what Sister Helen is advocating is made all the more powerful when brought to life through a musical score, and I am grateful and humbled by the role I have the opportunity to play in bringing this message to other people.

Central City Opera's Dead Man Walking opens on July 5th and has performances throughout July.