Dead Man Walking: Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally

People are wrong when they say the opera isn't what it used to be. It is what it used to be. That's what's wrong with it.—Noël Coward

If there's any single person who has made it his mission to prove Noël Coward wrong, it is former San Francisco Opera general director Lotfi Mansouri. He spearheaded the SFO's Pacific Visions program, which undertook to vindicate the vitality of the opera repertoire by commissioning new works and presenting rarely performed operas. The program was responsible for Conrad Susa's Dangerous Liaisons (1994), Stewart Wallace's Harvey Milk (1996), and André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (1998).

In March 1998, Mansouri announced what many observers considered a reckless gamble: The SFO had tapped Jake Heggie, an unknown composer, and Terrence McNally, a playwright who had never written a libretto, to produce a major opera based on the award-winning book Dead Man Walking, by Sister Helen Prejean, for the 2000 season.

Heggie was then known primarily for having composed eminently singable music, most significantly for Frederica von Stade, for whom he had written three large-scale song cycles, two major works for soloist and chorus, and orchestral songs.

McNally is well-known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Bad Habits, The Ritz, Lips Together, Teeth Apart, The Lisbon Traviata, Master Class, Love! Valour! Compassion!, and the books for the musicals The Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Full Monty, and Ragtime. However, while he had never written an opera before, he was an enthusiastic and knowledgeable opera lover, as he had so wittily revealed in The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class. He leapt at the chance to produce a significant new work.

But McNally was not enthusiastic about Mansouri's original suggestion that he and Heggie adapt René Clair's Les Belles de Nuit.

"Terrence just could not have been less interested," said Jake Heggie. "He wanted his first opera to be a serious drama and he wanted it to be an American story. A year later, we got back together. Terrence arrived with 10 ideas and he said, 'But there's only one I really want to work on.' The first one was Dead Man Walking, and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I said, 'You can stop right there.'

"Terrence said, 'I took the trouble to write this list, can I at least read it?'

"I said sure, but I honestly don't remember a single other thing from the list—I was already working out the story. It was just so operatic. It needed an opera house, or so it seemed to me."

Mansouri agreed, and set about acquiring a cast that could do the project justice. He tapped mezzo-soprano Helen Graham for the crucial role of Sister Helen. Longtime Heggie proponent Frederica von Stade enthusiastically accepted the role of the convicted murderer's mother. Patrick Summers, principal guest conductor for the SFO, agreed to conduct—when Heggie had worked in the opera's public relations department, he had given some of his songs to Summers, who was immediately supportive. Broadway veteran Joe Mantello was chosen to direct. The only hitch was casting the convicted murderer, Joseph De Rocher. A casting call went out and 50 baritones were auditioned. When John Packard walked on stage, Mansouri said his first thought was, "Oh my God, I hope he can sing! Then he opened his mouth. Yes!"

The casting completed, the group was summoned to read through the initial draft. Before that reading was over, several cast members were in tears. "From the first workshop, we knew Dead Man Walking would be a success," said John Packard. "We singers knew. That first runthrough, it sounded like really good musical theater, and Jake rewrote it in front of us to sound like a true opera. Everybody had their two cents, and Jake encouraged people to put in their two cents. Patrick Summers had a lot to say—especially when it came to orchestration."

Heggie, too, remarked on Summers' contribution. "Patrick Summers is a remarkable conductor and he really knows how to make things come alive as I imagined them—sometimes even better than I imagined them. He found elements of the score that I wasn't even aware that I had put in."

Susan Graham put it like this: "Dead Man Walking is different on every single level from anything I've done before. It goes beyond the language—although I do believe that when a singer sings in her native language, it packs a more emotional punch. And when we sing in the language the audience speaks, it's that much more direct for them. But the thing that made Dead Man Walking so different was the subject matter and the way it was addressed by Terrence and Jake. Their take on it was extremely human. They weren't interested in telling a political story; they were telling the real human drama and exploring the relationships that developed because of these unspeakable acts and how that develops into something that transcends all of them."