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Television Review

Exposing an Opera's Emotional Core

January 14, 2002|JAN BRESLAUER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Much of the actual "making" of an opera doesn't make for very exciting footage. It's all about one guy, or maybe two, sitting at a desk or piano. So if you're going to make a documentary, you've got to open things up.

Fortunately, that's what the makers of "And Then One Night: The Making of 'Dead Man Walking,'" airing tonight at 10 p.m. on KCET-TV, have done. Directed and produced by Linda Schaller for San Francisco PBS station KQED, with narration by actress Angela Bassett, this one-hour documentary not only traces the creation of a new American opera, but also explores the emotional conflicts at the core of the piece itself and, by extension, the debate over capital punishment. The result is a moving and well-paced program that suggests the impact a contemporary opera can have--and which this one certainly did on its electric opening night--but which rarely translates well to the small screen. In short, it does its subject justice.

"Dead Man Walking" premiered at San Francisco Opera on Oct. 7, 2000, and proved a major opera world event, attracting more mainstream publicity (and celebrities) than typically attend a new opera. The story of how that came to pass is nicely told by footage from an early workshop of the opera, various singing, staging and technical rehearsals, and scenes from the production itself.

"And Then One Night" also relies heavily on interviews with the creative principals, including composer Jake Heggie, librettist Terrence McNally, conductor Patrick Summers, director Joe Mantello, cast members Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, John Packard, Robert Orth and others, designers Michael Yeargan, Sam Fleming and Jennifer Tipton, and former San Francisco Opera general director Lotfi Mansouri, who commissioned the piece.

The filmmakers come to the project somewhat late--the commission was announced in March 1998--and consequently focus on the final year of the creative process. Still, they suggest the key artistic issues and preparatory work involved, without shying away from the opera's more confrontational and difficult moments. The scene in which convicted killer Joe De Rocher (baritone Packard) is executed by injection, for example, is shown nearly in full, and left arrestingly silent, as it was in the production.

Beyond this, "And Then One Night" also includes interviews with Sister Helen Prejean, on whose book the opera is based and whose account also inspired the earlier Hollywood movie of the same name, as well as with other people not ostensibly involved with the production, including family members of both victims and death row criminals.

Indeed, the emotional core of "Dead Man Walking" resonates from the victims' parents, who are given some of Heggie's most affecting music and McNally's most incisive writing. Schaller gives these scenes a great deal of attention, and that supports what Heggie and McNally have to say about their creative strategies.

Of course, no documentary about the making of an opera can approach the impact of the work itself. But "And Then One Night" gives you a credible feel for what "Dead Man Walking" is about, and that in itself is a service to the art form, its public and the potentially greater audience new American opera must find if it is ever to thrive.

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