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Grand Passions, Real Issues

A troupe intent on creating American operas and a pair unafraid of a topical subject team for 'Dead Man Walking.'

October 01, 2000|JAN BRESLAUER | Jan Breslauer is a frequent contributor to Calendar

SAN FRANCISCO — A towering black grid of square and rectangular cubicles looms at the back of a rehearsal hall stage. It is meant to represent both physical and psychological space--prison cells as much as the interior of the mind--and its very size suggests the insurmountability of the human conflicts unfolding in its shadow.

On stage in front of the massive structure, a group of men and women sing a scene fraught with pain and discord. Sister Helen Prejean, portrayed by mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, confronts the parents of teenagers murdered by the death row inmate she has been counseling.

"We know who you are, Sister. Your efforts to save Mr. De Rocher have made you a familiar face on the evening news," sings baritone Robert Orth as Owen Hart.

"Only human compassion can save Joe," sings the sister. "I'm there to comfort him."

"Comfort him?" replies Hart. "How come you never sought to comfort us?"

The mothers and fathers seem to be reaching out to Sister Helen even as they revile her. In resonant tones that give emotional form to grief, they let the memories spill forth, recalling a casual reprimand or an offhand goodbye to a son or daughter--last words that can never be taken back or changed. "Fix your blouse." "Comb your hair." "Do your homework." "Clean your room." "Shut the door." "Take your key."

It is a moment of extremes, and themes of life and death, love and hate form the core of the drama. The poignant lyricism gives shape to a tale as agonizing as the music is beautiful. The contrasts are nothing less than operatic.

Based on the 1993 book by the real Prejean, which chronicled her ministry to death row inmates, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's "Dead Man Walking" premieres Saturday at San Francisco Opera, directed by Joe Mantello, conducted by Patrick Summers and starring Graham, newcomer John Packard as the convicted killer Joe De Rocher, and Frederica von Stade as his mother, Mrs. Patrick De Rocher. The set is by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Sam Fleming and lighting by Jennifer Tipton.

Yet high as the emotional stakes are for the characters of "Dead Man Walking," there is drama offstage as well. As with any new opera, it is a risky endeavor, and the attention of the opera world will be fixed on San Francisco this week. Commissioned by San Francisco Opera, it is the fourth and final installment of general director Lotfi Mansouri's Pacific Visions program for the creation of new American operas. "Dead Man Walking" is also slated to be produced by Orange County's Opera Pacific in the 2001-02 season and conducted by John DeMain.

In fact, there may be more of a gamble than usual here. Unlike other recently premiered operas adapted from literary classics--including San Francisco's own "A Streetcar Named Desire," Lyric Opera of Chicago's "A View From the Bridge" or the Metropolitan Opera's "The Great Gatsby"--"Dead Man Walking" is set apart by its topicality, its real world base. It harbors the potential for controversy in much the way John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" did some years back. Co-commissioned by San Francisco Opera, among other companies, and given its West Coast premiere there in 1992, that piece, which grappled ambiguously with the story of the Palestinian terrorist attack on the cruise ship Achille Lauro, is thought to have encountered resistance from other opera houses because of their fear of political, or at least box office, backlash.

Still, San Francisco Opera claims never to have hesitated. "There was no doubt in my mind," insists Mansouri, whose Pacific Visions initiative has also been responsible for Conrad Susa and Philip Littell's "The Dangerous Liaisons" in 1994, a revised version of Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie's "Harvey Milk" in 1996, and Andre Previn and Littell's "Streetcar" in 1998. "Opera can deal with the most topical of topics. Americans are finally finding confidence in their own voice. These American pieces now are written for the audience, not for academia. They are becoming a part of the American expression in the art form, rather than based on European models."

What's more, the creators of "Dead Man Walking" have not backed off from telling their tale with a directness that some may find unsettling. Indeed, the opera opens with a prologue that includes nudity and simulated sex, followed by a brutal rape and double murder.

And yet, they say, their work is above all a tale of redemption. "What first attracted me to it as a subject was not where you stand on the death penalty," says acclaimed playwright and librettist McNally, whose idea it was to turn "Dead Man Walking" into an opera. "It's about the boundaries of forgiveness. It also impinges on how you feel about the death penalty, but we didn't think of it ever as an issues opera.

"This is about redemption, forgiveness, fighting for your soul," he continues. "This opera, from the minute it begins, I'm not surprised people are singing. It seems so right because the subject matter almost requires it."

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