Rock 'n roll music on the radio. Blood-curdling screams. Gunshots. Children's laughter replaced by inmates shouting, "Bitch!" A prison guard shouting, "Show some respect! She's an f---ing nun."
This is my world of the past month. Restful sleep has been hard to come by. I have been rehearsing Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking. The performances take place this weekend with the Madison Opera in Madison. Wisconsin does not have the death penalty,
but the story needs to be told.
Sister Helen Prejean of the order of St. Joseph of Médaille, a teacher and worker at Hope House in the inner city of New Orleans becomes a pen pal and spiritual advisor to a convicts on death row. In this operatic version, the focus is on Joseph deRocher -- an amalgam of convicts based on the real-life Patrick Sonnier and Robert Willie, prisoners on death row at Angola Prison.
Sister Helen turned 75 this week. Her first visit to death row was a little over 30 years ago and the book will have been out 20 years. She will be here to see the performance. She continues her ministry without signs of slowing down. I first heard her speak years ago in the Chicago area. She was appearing with victim Debbie Morris who survived a brutal crime by Robert Willie who was sentenced to death. The victim's book is called Forgiving the Dead Man Walking: Only One Woman Can Tell the Entire Story. I heard the story from the victim's side and of her need to go against her family by actually forgiving Willie in order to live fully.
Many people assume this is a story about the death penalty. It is up to the audience to decide what it really is about and what it means to them. I would call it an experience not to be missed. The genius of this libretto by Terrence McNally, based on the book, Dead Man Walking by Sister Helen Prejean, is that it truly captures the helplessness of all involved, the pain of the parents who have lost their kids to a brutal murder, the mother of the condemned unable to comprehend that her "little boy" has done such a thing. The core of the piece is Sister Helen's journey and the power of love and forgiveness. As she says to Joseph prior to his execution, "Look at me. I want the last thing you see to be the face of love."
When one thinks of opera, they certainly would not think of this story yet here it is, most emotionally charged by composer Jake Heggie. This opera makes no attempt to hide murder or the execution.
Incredibly, this was Jake's first opera. It first premiered in 2000 at the San Francisco Opera and continues to be produced numerous times a year. (He has had additional success with opera and a large catalog of song repertory. His most recent opera, "Moby Dick," is truly something to experience.)
Jake had given me a score of DMW soon after the premiere suggesting I look at the role of Helen. Because I am against the death penalty, I was quite interested. Timing and overbooking prevented me from ever singing that role but in 2011 I portrayed Jade Boucher -- the mother of one the murdered kids -- with Houston Grand Opera, just miles from the most active death house in the country. When we first staged the execution many of us were unable to continue with rehearsal.
Here in Madison we rehearse and we perform. Each day I plead for my son's life to the parole board in the presence of the parents of the murdered children. I say goodbye to my son before he is executed, unwilling to openly accept that he could have done such a horrible thing. Michael Mayes sings the role of Joseph. Each day he commits the crime, confesses to Sister Helen and is executed. Daniella Mack, singing her first Sister Helen with incredible richness and heart, takes her journey of ridicule walking past prisoners to the death row and inner mind of Joseph and to witness his execution. Everyone in this show, and for that matter, every time I have performed the opera, is 150 percent committed and involved. There is no "phoning it in" for this one.
The intensity is helped by Mike's dog, Pete, a muscular white mutt with a kind demeanor who has served, in a sense, as a therapy dog for us all. How nice that the company allows him to be around. He even has his own Facebook page!
This is opera, my friend. This is my life and our life and, boy, is it nice to do something that matters through my work, even if it is at the expense of a peaceful night's sleep. May we all be able to see "the face of love". Kudos to Madison Opera for producing such a daunting work.