‘Dead Man Walking’ coming to Minnesota Opera

| January 10, 2018 | 0 Comments

The story of a religious sister’s relationship with a man on death row will take the stage Jan. 27-Feb. 3 when the Minnesota Opera presents “Dead Man Walking” at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul.

Joel Ivany

The opera is based on the 1993 book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean of the Congregation of St. Joseph that describes her role as a spiritual director to two men on death row before their executions. The 1995 Academy Award-winning film starred Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Since Jake Heggie’s operatic adaptation in 2000, it has been called “the most successful 21st century opera.” The opera’s stage director, Joel Ivany of Against the Grain Theatre in Toronto, answered questions about the opera via email to The Catholic Spirit, describing the power of story. Raised in the Salvation Army, a Christian mission, Ivany said the Salvation Army’s commitment to justice and social action has stayed with him and “made this personal connection to this opera very intimate.” 

Q. How did “Dead Man Walking” become an opera?

A. This opera is based on a book written by Sister Helen Prejean called “Dead Man Walking,” about correspondence between Sister Helen and a death row inmate, Elmo Patrick Sonnier, in 1982. Through this experience, she was convicted to a life of social justice. She then agrees to become the spiritual adviser to Robert Willie, another man on death row. His physical likeness is whom Sean Penn based his character on for the film version in 1995, which was co-produced and directed by Tim Robbins. He adapted the screenplay from Sister Helen’s book and chose to change aspects of it by combining the experiences of both inmates into one inmate, Matthew Poncelet. Names were fictional, as well as the execution method used. The opera was commissioned and performed in 2000 by Lotfi Mansouri at the San Francisco Opera. The characters are again made up (inmate Joseph De Rocher), but based on those in both the book and movie. The only real character is Sister Helen Prejean.

Q. Could you describe the acclaim it has received and why?

A. This is the most successful 21st century opera. I think it has received such acclaim because of its accessibility through its story. This opera puts poor people and unlikely heroes in the spotlight, and it’s empowering. We see someone very ordinary (Sister Helen) do incredible acts, and that is extremely impactful. Companies all over the world are presenting this piece for its story, music and ability to emotionally engage with audiences. Forgiveness is a powerful tool.

Q. What makes it resonate with audiences?

A. The story, the text, the libretto, which was written by Terrance McNally, is an incredibly powerful story. McNally has had to choose which words to use and how much to cut from material that could be drawn from the book and also from the movie. Jake Heggie’s music then presents itself as some of the more accessible and inviting music of any recent opera. He uses themes of rock, jazz and gospel to immediately connect the audience to the score, which then allows us to enter into the psychology and heartbreak of this story.

Q. What universal themes does it convey?

A. It conveys themes of forgiveness, responsibility, love, hate, pain — all the good ones.

Q. Does it have a particularly relevant message for 2018 America?

A. Unfortunately, capital punishment is still carried out today in 31 of the 50 states in the United States. Referendums held in the U.S. on Nov. 8, 2016, reinstated the death penalty in some states, and in other states, they chose not to abolish it. The most recent execution in the U.S. was Ruben Cardenas Ramirez on Nov. 8, 2017, by lethal injection in Texas. The next execution is scheduled for Jan. 18 — Anthony Shore, in Texas. Outside of capital punishment, the message of forgiveness is incredibly universal.

Q. Why should people come and see it?

A. People should come and see this opera because it has the power to change someone. Its message of truth, hope and forgiveness is real and possible. It may be surprising that it comes from an opera, but it does. I can’t think of a better first opera to come to than this one. It is in English, relevant with great music and a powerful story. Anyone with any preconceptions of what opera is will be blown away.

Q. Would you like to add anything about your role with “Dead Man Walking”?

A. I am just fortunate to be able to be one of the many parts to make this opera happen. It’s a work that needs to be shown, and to have Sister Helen’s story told time and time again is only making the world a better place. Even a small light is extremely powerful.

For more information about “Dead Man Walking” at the Minnesota Opera, visit http://www.mnopera.org.

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