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Dead Man Walking and Talking

If asked to condense to one sentence the message of composer Jake Heggie's and librettist Terrence McNally's opera Dead Man Walking, the Dresser would say "the truth will set you free." In this political climate under the Trump administration where alternate facts and television reality shows keep changing the definition of truth, this opera about death row inmate Joseph De Rocher who claims innocence of two brutal murders and a rape weighs questions about social justice and personal responsibilities. De Rocher's foil is a young nun who agrees to be his spiritual advisor.Dead Man -Nun.jpg

Washington National Opera under the baton of maestro Michael Christie and direction of WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello have mounted WNO's premiere of Dead Man Walking, which the Dresser saw March 3, 2017. While not a perfect production, it is a strong one with baritone Michael Mayes admirably singing the role of Joseph De Rocher. Although the Dresser did not attend San Francisco Opera's world premiere of this work in 2000, she did see the second production created by seven American opera companies (executed by the Baltimore Opera) that included baritone John Packard as the original singer who developed the role of Joe De Rocher under the musical direction of the original developing conductor Patrick Summers. Zambello's production includes mezzo-soprano Susan Graham who originated the role of Sister Helen Prejean. However, in this 2017 production, Graham sings the more age-appropriate role of Mrs. De Rocher, the mother of the condemned man.
Dead Man Mom.jpg
Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey is certainly an admirable singer and actor. The Dresser loved Lindsey's impression of Elvis Presley during the one scene where something wonderfully humorous occurred. However, during much of the performance, Lindsey's voice was weak against the loudness of the orchestra. By contrast, Graham's voice showed better support and volume.

Dead Man.jpgThe musical palette of Dead Man is a mix of accessible and lyric dissonance coupled with traditional hymns and pop music some of which are original to Heggie, like the tunes played on the car radio of the teens who De Rocher and his brother brutalized and then killed. And yes, on stage is a big boat of a convertible car with top down and huge fins. Having seen this opera twice, the Dresser says Heggie's music works very well with the subject matter and Michael Christie has done a good job with the WNO orchestra.

Be certain this opera is not family entertainment. It treats deeply disturbing subjects that delve into the human psyche in various ways. In Elaine's Magarrell's poem "Good Girl," we learn about contradictions built into Western culture that prohibit a girl of good manners from telling the truth. Sister Helen is probed by her friend Sister Rose (sung by soprano Jacqueline Echols) to tell the truth about whether she has the spiritual fortitude to forgive De Rocher, who is clearly blaming the murders on his dead brother. This exegesis stands in contrast to De Rocher's mother who refuses to allow her criminal son to confess to her in his last minutes before execution that he has, in fact, murdered the teenage lovers. What Sister Helen must do is find her capacity to love Joe unconditionally so that he can tell her and then the grieving families that he committed the unspeakable crimes.


I know what a good girl is.
I have been a good girl,
flattered those who scorn me, 
listened hours to a bore.
I do anything to please.
I shut my mouth, 
feel guilty on demand.
I know what a good girl is.

I am such a good girl,
I dress up in a plain brown wrapper,
at parties I don't mix with men,
I would never kiss my doctor.
I know what a good girl is.

I will be a good girl,
smile until my mouth aches.
I will not tell the truth.
I will not tell the truth.

by Elaine Magarrell
from The Madness of Chefs

"Good Girl" copyright © 2017 by Elaine Magarrell

Photo Credits: Scott Suchmann


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 4, 2017 6:06 PM.

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