|And Then One Night: The Making of Dead Man Walking: Cast Comments|
Comments from the Cast of Dead Man Walking
The Journey of Creating a New Role
by Vanessa Bartsch
Staging the world premiere of a new American opera is a unique experience, requiring singers to learn music that no one has ever seen or heard. Couple that with the emotionally and politically charged subjects of murder, redemption and forgiveness. Then add a story that is well known to the public because of Sister Helen Prejean's acclaimed book, and Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon's emotional performances on the big screen. What you have is San Francisco Opera's Dead Man Walking.
Undertaking this project is a group of singers who have been musically and emotionally preparing themselves for months in anticipation of the vocal and dramatic challenge that lies ahead. Each artist has taken his or her own path, from John Packard's powerful day spent on Death Row, to Susan Graham's meeting with Sister Helen and Susan Sarandon; the singers have gone above and beyond the regular requirements of preparation.
Packard, who played the convicted Joe de Rocher, began by reading books and seeing documentaries about life within the prison walls, then decided to travel to Louisiana’s Angola Prison to get a true understanding of the feeling of being incarcerated. "I visited Death Row at a time when five or six inmates were outside in these pens playing football over the fences," he recalls. "They looked so young, hardly like hardened criminals. But when the guard caught me looking at them he said to me, 'Remember the horrendous sorts of crimes these kids all committed to get themselves put here.'"
"The hardest part of this role is finding the sympathetic side," Packard explains. "It's been very hard to leave this character behind because the emotions are high. It is on my mind at least 18 hours a day." Portraying characters who are all faced with ideas of death and loss in a realistic, modern setting is not an easy thing for any artist to do. Frederica von Stade admits that "some of the best preparation that I have for playing Mrs. de Rocher is that I'm a mother," she explains. "The agony of going through what she has and the possibility of losing her son and feeling that she is responsible without being able to share the consequences must be the greatest thing that a mother can bear."
Robert Orth, who appeared as one of the victims' fathers, solidly agrees. "Being a father adds a dimension," Orth says. "Even the people wit about children are dissolved. Losing a child is every person's worst fear."
Coping with one's own feelings while finding the fortitude to support the emotion of each role is a tremendous task. As she prepares the role of Sister Helen Prejean, Susan Graham felts the pressure of such demands. "It is daunting emotionally," she says. "It makes you go to places that are so difficult. We can't treat it as just another opera."
Indeed it is hard to think of another opera for which all those involved would admit to moments of immense trouble in holding back tears during a formal run-through. Catherine Cook, who played one of the victims' mothers, has had to work to find the necessary intimacy with the role balanced with control. "The biggest challenge for a performer in a piece like this is to be able to separate yourself from your own emotions about the highly controversial subject and put yourself in the mind of the character," Cook stresses.
Graham has her own way of finding balance. "I become the character," she explains. "I try to feel what they feel. As Sister Helen I have an obligation to hold it together. Susan Graham might fall apart in rehearsal a couple of times but Sister Helen seems so together as a person." When Graham first met Sister Helen and Susan Sarandon she remembers that, "all eyes were focused on Susan Sarandon but the real light was Sister Helen. As luminous a person and actress as Susan Sarandon is, when Sister Helen bounded into the room she was a presence. She is so full of goodness and infectious spirit and spunk. She has a generous spirit that generates from her."
However, Graham is quick to point out that getting to know Sister Helen is a mixed blessing. "You want to represent this person you have such affection for, but from an operatic perspective I have to do the character from the page with the traits that Jake and Terrence have chosen," says Graham. "When you are doing a living character it is almost better not to know the person too well. You want to keep your objectivity."
"I am not Susan Sarandon, just as I am not Sister Helen," Graham is quick to remind. "We all have out own calling. Susan is an Academy Award-winning actress and that is her calling. Sister Helen's calling is God. The musical aspect is my calling." Each singer must come to terms with not only portraying real people but also with the charged subject of the death penalty.
Graham has found that this is a hard topic for many people. "I've talked to a lot of people who have said, 'Why in the world would you want to do an opera about such morbid subject matter?'" she admits. "But it deals with larger issues: murder, redemption, love, death. It is part of our national consciousness."
Everyone agrees that an issue so current in the minds of Americans can be a successfully provocative undertaking. "The charged subject matter is exactly what will speak to people in the audience," says Kristine Jepson, who sang the role of Sister Helen in two performances. "They may be surprised at the end of it that they're not sure of what they thought they felt strongly about, with regard to capital punishment."
In addition to the topical subject matter there lies the added element of excitement that surrounds new works. Packard remarks that, "When you hear today’s attempt at opera most people ask, 'Is it lyrical?' Jake’s definitely is." Jepson also stresses that "the music and lyrics are incredible. It's such emotional writing, yet always accessible. Jake writes melodies and I must say that's a rarity and much appreciated in new American opera."
Orth also emphatically agrees. "I was pleased that it is so singable!" he says. "I love doing new pieces, especially new American pieces because they speak to me and speak to the audience in a way that others don’t. Also, one of the more wonderful things is working with these living composers. It's about right then, right now!"
Active supporters of American opera, von Stade and Jepson echo the excitement for new works such as Dead Man Walking. "New composers are writing for the voice in a lyrical and exciting style, and they are celebrating the English, American language," von Stade offers. "They are also celebrating our American authors. We singers have the great joy of expressing ourselves in our own idiom!"
"I think there are quite a few wonderful American composers right now," Jepson explains. "It's highly important that new opera is supported because it's one of the ways that our profession will continue to grow and stay current and fresh and interesting to new opera audiences."
With the excitement and apprehension there is also a sense of perspective. "It is like a ride," says Jepson. "Something you get on for however long it lasts." No matter what happens after the run in San Francisco, all those involved agree they will have gained a tremendous amount from being a part of such a powerful new production.