Ken Walton: How death row opera Dead Man Walking launched a career

Students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in rehearsal for the UK staged premiere of Dead Man Walking. From left: Rhys Thomas who plays a prison guard; Mark Nathan who plays death row prisoner Joseph De Rocher; Pedro Ometto who plays a prison guard and Carolyn Holt who plays Sister Helen Prejean. PIC: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland/Robbie McFadzean.
Students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland in rehearsal for the UK staged premiere of Dead Man Walking. From left: Rhys Thomas who plays a prison guard; Mark Nathan who plays death row prisoner Joseph De Rocher; Pedro Ometto who plays a prison guard and Carolyn Holt who plays Sister Helen Prejean. PIC: Royal Conservatoire of Scotland/Robbie McFadzean.
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The story of how American composer Jake Heggie came to write his first opera reads more like fairy tale than fact. Unable to pursue his career as a pianist due to focal dystonia, and writing songs as a hopeful composer on the side, he had settled for a job in the PR department of San Francisco Opera.

Then, like a fairy godmother, company boss Lofti Mansouri dragged Heggie into his office one day and said something to the effect of: “We need an opera for the 2000-1 season. You write songs, don’t you? How about we send you to New York to meet Terrence McNally. We’ve been after him for ages to write something for us, and reckon you and he would make a good team.”

Once it became clear his boss was serious, Heggie did meet the legendary playwright and the result was Dead Man Walking, nothing like the “bubbly bit of fun for the millennium” Mansouri had originally wanted, but a hard-hitting examination, based on a true story, of the spiritual journey undertaken by a Louisiana nun, Sister Helen, as she visited and challenged a convicted murderer on the notorious Angola Prison’s death row.

The opera premiered in October 2000 to great critical acclaim and a predictable modicum of controversy, with Frederica von Stade among its cast, and firmly established Heggie as an opera composer with a taste for offbeat subject matter. Subsequent hits have included End of the Affair (2003), Moby Dick (2010) and It’s a Wonderful Life (2016).

Dead Man Walking remains one of his most popular works, having had numerous production treatments worldwide, and is set to receive its Scottish premiere later this month courtesy of students of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, directed by Caroline Clegg and conducted by James Holmes.

Heggie won’t be coming to Glasgow for the new production – “They haven’t asked,” he jokes – but in any case he’s busy orchestrating his eighth full-length opera, If I Were You, based on Julien Green’s 1947 retelling of the Faust story, to be premiered at the San Francisco Merola Summer Festival this August.

“I love the fact this is a student production,” he says. “I love student casts because they become so engaged and excited in a challenging work like this, much more so than many professional casts.”

When Heggie wrote his first opera, one of the biggest challenges he faced was to present the story everyone had read about in the papers, and seen on the big screen courtesy of Tim Robbins’ 1995 film featuring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, in a different light. It begged for operatic treatment, he argues.

“I was familiar with Sister Helen’s journey from the news, but I hadn’t seen the film until Terrence suggested it. We rented it and watched it in his hotel room and I was knocked out, not only by the story and how powerful the film was, but the way it seemed to me naturally and organically operatic.

“It’s an intimate story with larger forces at work: love, loss, vengeance, redemption, all the big themes. Even before we watched the movie, I was thinking about how it would fit in the trajectory of classic opera in terms of solos, ensembles, choruses, and that the emotion was so big it made sense for characters to sing rather than speak.”

And the controversy? “It was controversial on so many levels,” Heggie recalls. “Few new operas were being commissioned at that time, so the public were weighing in on whether the story of a nun and her quest to justify redemption for an unrepentant killer was appropriate operatic subject matter. They were also asking why Terrence had been teamed up with a novice opera composer when there were any number of established ones who would have jumped at the opportunity.”

For Heggie, the process turned out to be a “natural fit,” and the musical outcome eclectic and easily accessible. “I realised I was a theatre composer and had been all along. Developing motifs is something I’ve always loved – melodic, rhythmic, harmonic ones that identify character or an action or an interaction and how those evolve and identify with the situation through the story. I was definitely influenced by other composers of the lyric stage, everyone from Britten to Bernstein, Sondheim, Gershwin, Poulenc, Debussy, all the prime suspects. People who really told stories.”

Heggie’s greatest fan, though, is the real Sister Helen. “She loved it immediately and feels it is the fullest expression of that story and her journey, even more so than the film, because you are present and physically watching it unfold in real time with real people.

“What makes her happy, too, is that by the end of the evening an audience of several thousand people have witnessed an execution and everything leading up to it, and become involved in a dialogue they hadn’t been before.”

Dead Man Walking is at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, from 18-24 May, www.rcs.ac.uk