|And Then One Night: The Making of Dead Man Walking: Article by Donald Spoto|
From Page to Stage: The Creative Genesis of "Dead Man Walking"
by Donald Spoto
"Night. A clearing in the woods by a lake. There is no moon. The heat is palpable. Spanish moss curtains everything. Danger, menace..."
Page one of Terrence McNally's libretto for Dead Man Walking at once sets an atmosphere of peril, the possibility of an imminent assault on nature itself. Then: "raucous music from the radio of a convertible..."
So begins the text for Jake Heggie’s breathtaking new opera, based on Sister Helen Prejean's book—a prize-winning bestseller that was also the inspiration for an Oscar-winning film.
"The first thing you notice about the work as you see it," comments set designer Michael Yeargan, "is an incredible tension. In this prologue, Jake starts with lush music, combined with rock 'n' roll heard on a car radio." An act of appalling violence follows, "and then you’re thrown into a tight spotlight on Sister Helen's face, as she sings a spiritual with her schoolchildren." The pace, the tension and the complex, poignant drama that follow never diminish.
But Dead Man Walking, the first full-length opera by the Company's Chase Composer-in-Residence, is no horror story, no true-crime tract about crime and punishment, simply set to music. It is, in the composer's words, "about a journey taken by a lot of different people toward self-discovery. It's definitely not a polemic against capital punishment—but neither is it in favor. It's a work about ordinary men and women caught up in an extraordinary situation, and what they learn about themselves and their capacities for love."
The journey of the characters Heggie describes also reflects the astonishing experience of the opera's creative team as they prepared San Francisco Opera’s seventh offering of a world premiere production.
"I think Jake and Terrence expected me to be shocked by the idea," recalls General Director Lotfi Mansouri. "But right away, I thought it was wonderful. All the elements of the story are so compelling: Sister Helen's gradual realization of her mission, the young man's hesitation to assume responsibility for his actions, the emotions of the families touched by the killings. Music brings a unique layer of emotion and conflict to all these aspects of the story." Turning Dead Man Walking into an opera, Mansouri adds, "brings new depths to this important literary work and elevates it to another plane." He agrees wholeheartedly with Heggie and McNally: the opera is not merely a literary project set to effective background music. It stands as a work in its own right, with its own structure, means and methods.
In fact, the book's author enthusiastically endorses the transformation from page to stage. "Operas are always about the deepest human conflicts—guilt and punishment, vengeance and healing, retribution and compassion," says Sister Helen Prejean, whose work with the very poor led to a ministry to men on death row, to their families and to the families of victims. "All the people in this story have their voices, their struggles. And it was thrilling for me to see how clearly and immediately Jake and Terrence understood the theme of redemption that is at the basis of the story."
As it happens, playwright McNally is a lifelong operagoer and expert in the history and aesthetics of the art. "I had always strongly felt that if I were ever to write an opera libretto, I wanted it to be on a contemporary American subject, for I believe in American operas, artists, themes and concerns." Present and future productions of Dead Man Walking will mark "a tremendous step forward for American opera."
In this regard, principal guest conductor Patrick Summers is articulate and insistent. "We spend a great deal of time on the music of the past," he reflects, "and of course those great works must always be kept alive. But I consider it my task to replenish the operatic repertory with new works—and particularly with new works from composers who are writing intelligent, dramatic music that audiences will immediately respond to. Of course, we''ll always present the most famous operas of history, but we also have to continue searching for those who can present our own message in our own time."
When a gifted composer like Jake Heggie comes along, Summers continues, "we see how alive and vital opera really is as an art form. He creates with such integrity, and he has a formidable intellect—but he isn't afraid to compose from his heart. He speaks to the general public, but he does it with first-rate dramatic music, not simple or pandering music. That’s why this new opera is so important for our time, for what Jake has done is to show how opera can give us various dramatic situations simultaneously. Several things on both sides of the story are happening at once, and so the score gives an emotional depth and immediacy to the characters as well as to the themes."
Summers and Mansouri—along with singers like Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming, Susan Graham and Brian Asawa—have long championed Heggie. "Jake has written wonderful songs for piano and voice," notes Summers, "but I felt he was always writing orchestrally—he thinks in orchestral colors." This is certainly true in Dead Man Walking. "It's a score that could have come only from an American—it's melodic, rhythmic and complex all at once."
For those who know only the recordings of Heggie's art songs and song cycles, the opera will be a revelation. "I've sung and recorded many of his pieces," says von Stade, who also composed the texts for several of them. "Jake is caring and thoughtful for his singers, but the fundamental reason for his popularity is that he has a truly great personal musical style. He's wonderfully innovative, he has fresh ideas, and he understands the human voice as profoundly as he does each instrument of the orchestra. Nothing in Jake's music ever rings false." Von Stade, who sings the role of the condemned man’s mother in Dead Man Walking, adds that McNally's libretto works brilliantly with Heggie's score, "and Sister Helen's spiritual sensibility really shines through in this opera. All of us feel very privileged to be a part of it."
On his side, Heggie is quick to praise his cast. "I had a huge advantage while I was composing, because I knew from the start who the singers would be [von Stade, Susan Graham, Kristine Jepson and John Packard, among others]. And what a team they are: they seem capable of anything you ask of them, and they’re all so enthusiastic."
As is director Joe Mantello, who has been an actor as well as a stage and film director (Dead Man Walking is his first venture into the world of opera). "Staging an opera requires a different set of tools from the theater," he says, "but essentially the same question confronts us as we work our way all through the collaborative process and into rehearsals: Is the story clear, and how best can we tell it?"
The same question exercised Heggie and McNally from their first days at work on the project. "Terrence and I spoke so much about what we were going to do in terms of dramatic pacing," recalls the composer. "We wanted to be very clear about when the ensembles would occur, where there would be a heightening of dramatic tension and so forth."
As it happened, the first musical motif that came to Heggie was the melody for the hymn that eventually found its way to the end of the opera. "It came to me in a taxicab on the way to the airport! From that little hint of music one afternoon, every bit of subsequent melodic material was born." Soon he knew the texture and character of the music he wanted, "but as I got to know the characters better, the music became clearer, and it's no exaggeration to say that the characters told me the story, in musical terms. I've learned that the composer has to listen carefully to the inner logic, to the heart of the characters."
By the time he had completed the orchestrations and rehearsals began, Heggie felt more and more confident that he had found his place in the theater, "and that place was with vocal music, not abstract music. Everything I've gone through in my life has nourished and come to fruition in this work; everything has been a test of what's important to me." At each point in the development of the work, he recalls, he had to ask himself, "Can I weather the storms—both of life and of the creative process—and use all the experiences to create something meaningful?"
Heggie adds that he and his partners in the realization of this exciting and important new work never tried to make a documentary based on a fine book—"nor were we trying to recreate the movie or stake out a position on any issues. We set out to tell a story about people from disparate backgrounds who were somehow caught up in a common, dreadful event."
But the music, of course, has primacy. "I’m always hearing speech and understanding characters in musical terms—in fact as music," Heggie says quietly. When asked to describe the musical style of Dead Man Walking, he doesn't hesitate: "It's very lyrical, with large ensembles, several duets, a quartet, a sextet—almost everything that can occur in an opera. For me, that kind of variety is a crucial part of the excitement of composing."
From the start, Lotfi Mansouri believed that his first responsibility was "to provide all the elements that allow an audience to reflect on the story with each of their faculties—intelligence, emotions and spirit. We’re called upon to present this particular part of a human reality in artistic terms, and to show how opera itself can deal with that reality."
"I'm enormously grateful to Lotfi for making this opera happen," concludes Heggie. "He made a huge leap of faith in trusting me with this project, and I'll never forget his generosity." By all accounts, that faith has been supremely justified–as San Francisco Opera audiences will soon discover.
Donald Spoto is the author of 18 published books, most recently Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: A Life (St. Martin's Press).