Dead Man Walking: Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally Page 2

Even though everyone was convinced they had the makings of a success in their hands, the material itself took an emotional toll. Dead Man Walking tells the tale of a convicted murderer, Joseph De Rocher, who reaches out to Sister Helen Prejean—first as a pen-pal, later as a spiritual advisor—in the final days before his execution. In a prologue, the audience witnesses his participation in a brutal rape and murder; the rest of the work recounts Sister Helen's journey as she attempts to help him achieve a level of moral comprehension of his crimes as means of finding redemption. But the opera is not simplistic in its approach—mirroring the balance in Sister Helen's book, it addresses the inconsolable grief of the victims' families and the toll the whole death apparatus takes on those who live with it.

"Sister Helen was an outsider who came into this prison world of darkness," said Susan Graham. "She was such an inspiration—both tangibly and by her very existence. Her spiritual philosophies and the kind of person she is informed the opera. The work would have been very different if she weren't the kind of person she is. But Jake and Terrence took her sense of humor into account, and her ability to reach out and speak to and embrace the fallen man.

"The opera is about the journey of these two people, but I would venture to say that it is almost more about Sister Helen's journey—I think De Rocher's journey is her journey. Because it's a very close human story, to do it effectively you couldn't avoid sort of living it each time—and when you're living it every day for six hours in rehearsal for six weeks, it can wear you down. It was very, very tough."

"Composing Dead Man Walking was challenging because one lives with the emotion every single day," Heggie said. "There's a lot of grief and anguish throughout the piece, and I definitely internalized all of that, which is why I needed to take breaks during the writing. The characters are so intense. To keep them honest and real I had to give them balance. For instance, Sister Helen has a great sense of humor. If I wanted to make you to care about her, I had to give her that human side, too."

That sense of humor comes to the fore in several memorable scenes, most notably an encounter with a highway cop on Sister Helen's first trip to Angola Prison. "Lady, no one's in a hurry to get to Angola....I never gave a nun no ticket before. Gave a ticket to an IRS agent one time. Got audited that year."

That encounter also illustrates another of Dead Man Walking's strengths: McNally's libretto is written in contemporary American English that's as plain as stone and clean as bone. But that doesn't mean it's flat. "One of the reasons it was so easy to set Terrence's words is that he has a sense of forward motion in his language," said Heggie. "That means there's a rhythm and an innate musicality on the page, and I just picked up on that."

Indeed. It is widely accepted that operas sung in English can be just as hard for American audiences to understand as those written in Italian or German or French, but a great deal of DMW's impact comes from the way the words, buoyed by Heggie's athletic melodies, bypass the intellect and lodge in the emotions. "Jake has a unique ability to write as language is spoken," said John Packard. "It has a musical line, but it is very much like the spoken line. That's like Mozart. We didn't have to stretch out a whole sentence to fit a line like you have to do in Puccini."

"Jake's writing carries these sweeping melodic lines," Graham agreed. "Terrence wrote great text that is eminently singable, and Jake knows a lot about singing and he set it so it was as easy to sing as it could possibly be."

"I just love the play of the English language," said Heggie. "The way the vowel sounds work and trying to find musically equivalent expressions, to find the right dynamic, the right tessitura to make a vowel or a consonant work. I like those challenges.

"The hard thing about this score is it never stays in one tempo for very long. It's like English, or like speech, where you are constantly changing...and I think that's particularly true of Americans. If you're setting English to music, tempo's something you have to be sensitive to—that's just the way we talk."

As the world premiere drew closer, director Joe Mantello joined the cast and crew to begin the arduous process of actually staging the new opera. "When I first arrived for rehearsal, I had my idea of how to act the part and how to project the bad-guy image," said Packard. "Joe told me to 'Go to the dark spot.' As we rehearsed it, it all became more and more real—and it became increasingly hard for me to get out of that character after I left rehearsal. That's a fairly dark place to be."