Based on the non-fiction book by Sister Helen Prejean, Pensacola Opera’s “Dead Man Walking” portrays the story of a young nun and her emotional experience with a Death Row inmate in Louisiana’s infamous Angola Prison.
“Dead Man Walking” was adapted into an opera by composer Jake Heggie, commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in 2000. Since then, over 50 productions have been presented worldwide.
Pensacola Opera Executive Director Jerome Shannon said that the primary variation between the book and the opera is that the book is fact and the opera is based on the book.
“Just like a movie which is ‘based on’ existing source material, artistic liberties are taken to achieve the maximum theatrical impact,” Shannon said. “The most significant variation between the book and opera is the combination of the two primary characters in Sister Helen’s book into one character in the opera. Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie become Joseph de Rocher in the opera. This is similar to the movie by Tim Robbins which combined Sonnier and Willie into the character Matthew Poncelet, played by Sean Penn.”
Shannon said that another variation is the employment of a theatrical device which allows the audience to know more than a character on the stage, which in this case, is Sister Helen.
“In the book and movie, Sister Helen is always in search of the truth, and the convict is always denying his guilt,” he said. “It is not until right before his execution that he admits his guilt to Sister Helen. In the opera, we see the crime take place during the opera’s prelude. We have seen him commit the crime and we know he is guilty. Then we watch Sister Helen as she discovers this truth, and succeeds in convincing him to admit his guilt to the victim’s parents, and to God.”
The leading cast includes Michael Mayes as Joseph de Rocher, Elise Quagliata as Sister Helen, NaGuanda Nobles as Sister Rose, Corey McKern as Owen Hart and Hanan Tarabay as Joseph’s mother.
“At its very essence, the opera is about compassion, forgiveness and our shared humanity,” Shannon said. “In the first act, Sister Helen expresses to the warden of Angola Prison that she doesn’t believe in capital punishment.”
“His response, ‘I don’t give a good [expletive] what you believe or don’t in. We’re all just doing our jobs,’ sets the opera on a course of giving voice to all who are affected by this horrific crime and the punishment for it,”
Shannon said. “As we follow Sister Helen’s journey through the complexities of the legal and judicial systems, we also follow her interactions with the criminal, his family, the families of the victims, her fellow Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, the staff of Angola Prison, and the children to whom she ministers at Hope House where the opera begins.”
Having conducted productions of Dead Man Walking in Tulsa, Ann Arbor, Dayton, and Shreveport, Shannon has been able to observe each of the unique community’s experiences with the piece.
“When the Board of Trustees approved the presentation of this piece, they also recommended an amplified program of community awareness,” Shannon said. “As the consideration for this production of ‘Dead Man Walking’ began with a town hall style meeting with our donors and subscribers, we felt the continuation of community discussions focused on various topics relative to the subject matter would engage our community in a way which was unique and powerful. Our goal was to establish our company as a community resource where important discussions and dialogue could peacefully coexist.”
“Dead Man Walking” was the first opera by Heggie, with libretto by Terrence McNally.
“Jake Heggie was a freshly graduated piano major who had already been composing songs for the voice,” Shannon said. “He took a job in the Marketing Department of San Francisco Opera. His interactions with the opera’s guest artists allowed him to offer a collection of his compositions to one of the singers, American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade. She brought Jake’s compositional talents to the attention of the opera’s General Director, Lotfi Mansouri, who awarded Jake the commission of an opera.”
Shannon said that Heggie then met with the Tony-award winning playwright Terrence McNally, who was interested in crafting an opera libretto, the sung words in an opera. When they met, Terrence told Jake he had a list of subjects which interested him as a possible opera. Jake says the third title on the list was ‘Dead Man Walking’ and he told Terrence to go no further.
“It was Jake’s first opera and Terrence’s second opera libretto,” Shannon said. “While most ‘new’ operas receive limited exposure and productions when Pensacola Opera presents the Florida premiere of ‘Dead Man Walking,’ it will be the 51st unique production presented in this country and around the world.”
In addition to the cast, members of the Pensacola Opera Chorus and Pensacola Symphony Orchestra will appear in the opera. Sixteen members of the Pensacola Children’s Chorus were also selected to participate in “Dead Man Walking.” They will play the role of children in the mission run by Sister Helen and her fellow sisters.
“Pensacola Opera enjoys a treasured relationship with Pensacola Children’s Chorus,” Shannon said. “I’ve been conducting here since 2002 and have been fortunate to work with the children in productions of ‘Carmen,’ ‘La Boheme,” Tosca’ and ‘Turandot.’ In fact, one of our ‘Dead Man Walking’ cast members, Hanan Tarabay, sang with the Pensacola Children’s Chorus as a preface to her advanced vocal study at the Curtis Institute of Music. Under the direction of Susan and Allen Pote, and now the new Artistic Director, Alex Gartner, Pensacola Opera’s productions have always benefitted from the inclusion of these talented young musicians.”
DEAD MAN WALKING
WHAT: Pensacola Opera presents Dead Man Walking
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 17 and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 19
WHERE: Saenger Theatre, 118 S. Palafox
ADDITIONAL EVENTS: A “Meet the Artists” Reception will be held Friday after the show. Tickets are $50, $40 for season subscribers. A Director’s Champagne Brunch will be held before the Sunday matinee at 11:45 a.m., tickets are $50.