Atlanta Opera premieres 'Dead Man Walking'
Sister Helen Prejean discusses the ‘conflicted spiritual journey’
The Atlanta Opera’s staging of Dead Man Walking is arguably the most significant and certainly one of the most anticipated productions in the company’s 40-year history. The local premiere of what has become the most popular American opera since Nixon in China can be likened to simultaneously walking into the belly of the beast and participating in a homecoming parade.
Composed by Jake Heggie with a libretto by Terrence McNally, Dead Man Walking is based on the acclaimed book by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Published in 1993, Dead Man Walking recounts Prejean’s experience as spiritual advisor to two death row inmates at Louisiana State Penitentiary (plantation name “Angola”). Convicted of separate crimes, Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie were electrocuted by state decree in 1984.
In 1995, a film adaptation of Dead Man Walking, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, was released. Sarandon earned an Academy Award for her portrayal of Sister Prejean while Penn was nominated for his performance as Matthew Poncelet, a composite character based on Sonnier and Willie.
The world premiere of Heggie’s Dead Man Walking occurred on October 7, 2000 at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. Originally produced by the San Francisco Opera, where the composer was working as a publicist, the opera has since been staged more than 300 times in opera houses and concert halls from Adelaide, Australia and Cape Town, South Africa to Montreal, Canada and Dresden, Germany. Dead Man Walking will receive its Metropolitan Opera debut during the 2020-21 season. The Atlanta Opera production runs February 2, 5, 8 and 10 at the Cobb Energy Centre.
“The opera version is brilliantly done,” says Prejean in a phone interview conducted in December. “It’s the fullness of art. It’s live drama on the stage, which brings the story close to people, and the music is so beautiful. As they say, music instructs the emotions. There are some genius parts in the opera,” she adds, that neither the movie or the book were able to capture.
Opera is certainly no stranger to murder, but the prologue of Dead Man Walking, which depicts the killing of two teenagers (including the rape of the girl) by brothers Anthony and Joseph De Rocher (baritone Michael Mayes), is a dramatic plot device of an altogether different bent. “As Jake [Heggie] explained it to me,” Prejean says, “you want the audience to see who did this horrible act, so they’re not using up any of their moral energy wondering whether he did or didn’t do it. This isn’t a crime drama.”
From his death row cell, De Rocher requests a visit from Sister Prejean (mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton) with whom he has been corresponding as part of a community outreach program. Against the advice of Sister Rose (soprano Karen Slack), a fellow nun at Saint Joseph of Medaille, Prejean agrees to meet the condemned man. This is the first step of a painful and conflicted spiritual journey, ultimately leading to a redemptive resolution.
In the real world, Prejean was rocked to the core by her experience at Angola, which included interaction with prison guards, administrators, and people in charge of executions. Especially disturbing were confrontations at sentencing hearings with the parents and relatives both of the victims and the death row convicts. Compelled by the injustice, corruption and discrimination she witnessed within the system, Sister Prejean launched a crusade to abolish the death penalty. She founded Survive, an organization to support families of murder victims in New Orleans. She served on the board and as board chair of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (NCADP). In 1999, Prejean formed Moratorium 2000 (later the Moratorium Campaign), a petition drive that seeks a moratorium on executions.
“The death penalty is on its way out,” Prejean says confidently. “There are only pockets where it’s actually still practiced, Georgia being one of them.”
In 1972, a Supreme Court ruling on Furman v. Georgia established that the death penalty violated the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment clause forbidding cruel and unusual punishment. The ruling was based on a pattern proving that death sentences were arbitrarily and discriminatorily imposed. Although the ruling did not absolutely forbid state-sanctioned killing, Furman v. Georgia effectively placed a moratorium on the practice.
Consequently, dozens of states revised procedural guidelines to mitigate or eliminate the taint of unfairness and discrimination from their lethal retribution policies. In 1976, led by Gregg v. Georgia, the Supreme Court found that newly established sentencing procedures by Georgia, Florida, and Texas were admissible, while procedural criteria introduced by North Carolina and Louisiana did not pass muster.
“It’s very interesting that the nexus of both of those decisions is Georgia,” says Prejean. “It’s one of the Deep South killing states. It’s no coincidence that the most active practitioners of death, where 75 percent of executions have happened, are the 10 southern states that practiced slavery.”
In 1990, Prejean undertook an arduous march from Stark, Florida, to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta to protest the death penalty. Numerous groups participated in the 330-mile march, including Amnesty International and the NCADP. In Atlanta, the marchers arrived carrying 90 coffins representing the number of prisoners executed that year. Exhausted by the ordeal, Prejean collapsed as soon as the caravan stopped. After recovering, she returned to New Orleans where a pleasant surprise awaited: A letter from Jason Epstein, an editor at Random House, included an invitation to come to New York to discuss the prologue and outline of the book she had submitted.
“And now I’m coming back to Atlanta with this wonderful opera based on Dead Man Walking,” Prejean says. “In a way, this is full circle.”
Dead Man Walking’s Atlanta engagement also represents a homecoming of sorts for the director and lead singer. This particular staging of Heggie’s masterwork, which debuted in New Orleans in 2016 under the direction of Tomer Zvulun, is a co-production with the Israeli Opera. An Israeli native, Zvulun has been general and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera since 2013. In December, when Dead Man Walking travels to Tel Aviv, Zvulun will be directing the first contemporary American opera ever staged in Israel by the opera company where his career began.
“That’s an amazing circle and an incredible honor,” Zvulun says.
On opening night in New Orleans, because the events depicted in Dead Man Walking transpired in the 1980s, Zvulun, along with the rest of the opera company, was unsure how the audience would react. Any number of people packed into the opera house could have been directly affected by or closely associated with the story and attendant controversy over Sister Helen’s death row counseling and anti-capital punishment advocacy. Happily, the performance was well-received, with many shouting “Bravo!” at its conclusion through multiple curtain calls.
“Sitting next to Sister Helen on opening night was a spiritual moment,” Zvulun says. “I realized this incredible person next to me had been memorialized in a way that transcends her actual being. Dead Man Walking is not a biopic and Sister Helen is a symbol, which was a revelation to me. It was one of the pinnacle experiences of my career.”
For the the opera’s Atlanta run, the task of embodying Sister Helen Prejean falls to mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton. Born in Rome, Georgia, Barton first sang on stage when she was six years old in an elementary school talent show. Now residing in Atlanta, the 37-year-old artist is one of the opera world’s signature voices. Her 2018/19 season includes a stint as Azucena in Il trovatore with Lyric Opera of Chicago, singing the Verdi Requiem at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and two role debuts: as Sister Prejean and as Sara in Roberto Devereux at the San Francisco Opera.
“When we did Dead Man Walking in New Orleans," Zvulun recalls, "I was having drinks with Michael Mayes who plays Joseph De Rocher. I told him about doing the opera in Atlanta in three years and asked him who we should cast as Sister Helen. At some point in the conversation, a light went on and both of us said, ‘Jamie Barton!’ We were very fortunate that her schedule allowed this to happen.”
In addition to fictionalizing certain characters, the narrative arc of the opera differs in significant ways from Prejean’s book. The music and libretto vividly convey the wrenching conflict between characters. With sublime grace and sensitive articulation, Heggie and McNally capture the fraught, evolving relationship between Sister Prejean and Joseph De Rocher. What Dead Man Walking does not do is strap down the audience and administer a lethal dose of anti-capital punishment talking points.
“There are really three points of view being expressed simultaneously,” Zvulun asserts. “It’s Sister Helen’s journey and her passionate argument against the death penalty. Jake Heggie says his opera is about a journey, but also about identity: Sister Helen’s identity as a nun, De Rocher’s identity as a delinquent, and the parents’ identities as victims of injustice. For me, it’s about parenting and the vulnerability we feel when we send our child out into the world.”
Sister Prejean’s take on the success of her book, the film and, now, Jake Heggie’s opera, comes down to its deeper themes, which include the promise of redemption and the sobering realization that even the most monstrous of crimes cannot completely obliterate the human beings responsible for committing them. Most importantly, Dead Man Walking reveals the human capacity for absolution.
“Whenever I give talks on Dead Man Walking, the hero of the story is always Lloyd LeBlanc, who lost his son, David, and made his way on a journey of forgiveness,” Prejean says. “Lloyd once said to me, ‘People think forgiveness is a sign of weakness, that by forgiving the man who killed my son, I’m condoning what happened. Condoning! There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of my son and grieve.’”
“But,” Sister Prejean continues, “he was so eaten up with anger [that] he was losing the love inside his heart, the gentleness and kindness within his soul. He looked at me, put his hand out as if to say 'Stop!’ and said, “No, sir, they killed my boy, but I’m not going to let them kill me. I’m gonna do what Jesus said.’”