From cell to stage

Groundbreaking opera piques Dayton’s interest

By Eric Street

Photo: Composer Jake Heggie; photo: Art Clarity

An extraordinary event is about to take place in the Mead Theater of the Schuster Center: the first Midwest production in a decade of the gripping contemporary opera, Dead Man Walking. Composed by Jake Heggie to a libretto by Terrence McNally, Dead Man Walking does not shrink from asking the most difficult questions. Is all life precious? Even the life of a murderer?

Perhaps you’ve read the 1993 book that inspired the opera, a true autobiographical account by Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun from New Orleans and a member of the Congregation of Saint Joseph. In her narrative, she describes the transformative events leading to her becoming a leading advocate for the abolition of capital punishment. Prejean begins her unexpected spiritual journey by honoring the request of an acquaintance to correspond with two convicted murderers. She ultimately becomes their spiritual advisor, remaining in contact with them until the very end – their scheduled executions. Her experience with the prison and justice system as well as her own spiritual journey inspired the writing of her first book.

It is that final walk to execution that provides the title: Dead Man Walking. In American prisons it was once traditional for the guards to call out the warning, “Dead man walking. Dead man walking now,” as they escorted a condemned prisoner down the hallway. As Jake Heggie said during one of his recent visits to the University of Dayton, “Speaking with her on the phone that first time, I quickly realized that Sister Helen is a down-to-earth person who doesn’t fear to walk in the dark places.”

Art imitates life

While advocating against the death penalty, Prejean founded Survive, an organization that provides counseling to families of the victims of violence. She also founded Moratorium 2000, a petition drive that grew into a national educational outreach program called The Moratorium Campaign. That campaign ultimately produced Witness to Innocence, formed around convicted death row inmates who were later found to be innocent.

“The death penalty is one of the great moral issues facing our country, yet most people rarely think about it and very few of us take the time to delve deeply enough into this issue to be able to make an informed decision about it,” Prejean said.

If you haven’t read Prejean’s book or its successor, “The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions,” you may have seen the dramatic 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was a critical as well as financial success, grossing over $80,000,000 worldwide. Nominated for Academy Awards in four categories, the film was co-produced and directed by Tim Robbins, who personally adapted the screenplay from Prejean’s book. Actors Sarandon and Penn each garnered Golden Globe nominations, and Robbins received one for best screenplay. He later adapted his screenplay into a stage version with the same title.

As Heggie explained, the opera would never have been written had not Lotfi Mansouri, then the General Director of the San Francisco Opera, talked him into the project.

“I’m sending you to New York to meet Terrence McNally,” he told the surprised Heggie. At this point, Heggie had never considered writing an opera, though he declared, “I’m a writer of stories. I’ve written chamber music, but really I’m a storyteller. Even my art songs tell stories.”

It would be difficult to find a better choice than Terrence McNally to write the libretto for a new opera. He’s won Tony Awards for Best Play for “Love! Valor! Compassion!” and “Master Class,” as well as Tonys for Best Book of a Musical for Kiss of the Spider Woman and Ragtime.

“I think theatre teaches us who we are, what our society is, where we are going,” McNally said. “I don’t think theatre can solve the problems of a society, nor should it be expected to. … Plays don’t do that. People do. [But plays can] provide a forum for the ideas and feelings that can lead a society to decide to heal and change itself.”

Change and healing are certainly crucial to Sister Helen, who continues her crusade through advocacy, personal appearances and media of all sorts. One of her most recent Facebook posts stated, “Good news: All of the executions that Ohio had scheduled for this year have been pushed back to 2016 because the drugs designated in the state’s lethal injection protocol are unavailable. As it continues to become clear that lethal injections are not a ‘humane’ way to put people to death and the necessary drugs become more scarce, I hope that more states will re-evaluate whether the death penalty is really worth all of this trouble.”

Dead Man comes to Dayton

To pull off this unusual and thought-provoking opera production (intended for mature audiences because of language and violence), Dayton Opera under Artistic Director Thomas Bankston has assembled an outstanding team to bring the work to life on the Schuster stage. Conductor Jerome Shannon will make his Dayton Opera debut at the podium, leading members of the Dayton Philharmonic orchestra. Well-remembered for numerous roles and productions here, the multi-talented Gary Briggle returns as stage director.

Mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin will assume the leading role of Sister Helen Prejean in her Dayton Opera debut. Zachary Gordin will join her, starring as the convicted murderer she befriends, Joseph De Rocher.

They will be joined on stage by Margaret Gawrysiak, a mezzo-soprano playing Mrs. De Rocher, mother of the murderer, soprano Minnita Daniel-Cox as Sister Rose, bass-baritone Thomas Hammons as Warden George Benton, tenor Gary Briggle (also stage director) as Father Grenville, Chaplain at Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola). Joshua Wheeker debuts as Howard Boucher, the father of the murdered boy, and mezzo-soprano Ryu-Kyung Kim sings Jade Boucher, the mother of the murdered boy. Ryu-Kyung Kim was recently seen on the Schuster stage as the Third Lady in Mozart’s Magic Flute.

Rounding out the cast are soprano Andrea Chenoweth (recently seen as the First Lady in Magic Flute and the Priestess in Aida) as Kitty Hart, the mother of the murdered girl and baritone Jeff Byrnes as Owen Hart, the father of the murdered girl. Baritone Errik Hood sings Motorcycle Cop/1st Guard, mezzo-soprano Amanda Fink portrays Sister Lillianne, and soprano Sara Schabas is Sister Catherine.

For this unusual production, Dayton Opera has partnered with the University of Dayton and its unique and innovative “Rites. Rights. Writes.” campus-wide initiative for these performances and throughout the 2014-15 season. Minnita Daniel-Cox, Ryu-Kyung Kim, Andrea Chenoweth and Errik Hood are all voice faculty members of the University of Dayton Department of Music.

Jake Heggie, in his own words

Whether speaking to students or in one-on-one interview, Jake Heggie impresses his listeners with his thoughtful, calm demeanor, his modesty about his relatively sudden global success, and his quick but incisive response to questions posed by Sharon Gratto, students and this writer in his two days on the University of Dayton campus Jan. 28-29.

Early beginnings…

“Wow,” Heggie began, speaking on his early influences. “I grew up in Bexley, Ohio. We moved when I was 16, but my formative years were in Ohio so I’m familiar with your great state. My earliest musical influence would be my father, an amateur jazz saxophonist. He was an M.D., but he loved listening to big band music, he loved big band singers like Jo Stafford and Peggy Lee, and he also listened to a lot of Artie Shaw and Tommy Dorsey. He’d play everything he could think of, but he played in the basement – that’s where he had to play his horn.

“I grew up in an era of great movie musicals in the theater, like The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins, and you had to go to the theater to see them. It was an event! I loved musical theatre as a kid, but we also had great variety shows on television like the Carol Burnett Show. They had all of these shows where they would invite musical guests, so one week it would be Bernadette Peters and the next it would be Marilyn Horne, so you’d get this huge range of singing and swinging and all kinds of things.

“I loved opera early, and I loved piano early – I started playing when I was about 7 or 8 years old. I loved it, and the first day they taught me to play ‘Hot Cross Buns!’ I played ‘Hot Cross Buns’ for weeks! That was a good teacher who taught me to play something quickly, and I was hooked from that moment on.

“It was a combination of all those things. I just had a great love of music from the time I was really little. I didn’t know if I’d be able to make my life in it, but I always knew it would something central to my life.”

Advice to young people…

“Don’t just stay in your comfort zone. Try music that scares you, try projects that scare you.

“My favorite Oscar Wilde quote is, ‘Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.’

“Don’t just spend all of your life in a practice room. You also have to have a life, because the things you do will inform your life as a creative person. And I was always devoted to practicing. I was a piano person – five, six hours a day was my norm.”

On composing…

“I still write my manuscripts by hand. Part of the creative process is making a mess! Those who only go to the computer, they miss a step. The computer program may convince you that composing should be easy, but it’s not. As Ernest Hemingway once said, ‘It’s easy to write. I just go to the typewriter and stare until the blood gushes from my head.’ And sometimes that’s what it feels like. But I do write everything by hand. I’m physically invested, and if I write something out and it’s not right, I have to rewrite it all by hand. And that takes time.

“I mostly write songs and opera. I’m a theatre composer – I look for things that tell stories. There are abstract composers who write abstract music, and there are theatre composers who write stories. They love the collaborative aspects, they love working with words. Verdi was like that. Verdi also wrote chamber music, but you don’t listen to it. Wagner also wrote piano sonatas, and they’re TERRIBLE! Mozart, he could do everything.

“I’ve written chamber music and some other things, but I’m most at home writing for the theatre. I love writing for the voice. Knowing whom I’m writing for is very, very important.

“My job in writing an opera is to create a sound-world in which all those characters can live. As a composer, what I strive for is to write something that sounds inevitable and surprising, all at the same time.”

On cuts in arts education …

“It’s terrible! Music is essential to us as human beings! Kids want to clap, to sing, to dance. Look at the programs that are popular. I see kids who are starved for music, and I think it’s criminal to take it away from them. It helps with abstract thinking, helps with science and math. It broadens the palette for life.”

The Dayton Opera will perform Dead Man Walking at 8 p.m. Friday, Feb. 27 and 3 p.m. Sunday, March 1, 2015. Tickets begin at $38 for adults and $24 for students; $15 student rush tickets may be available the day of the performance. There will be an Opera Preludes pre-performance talk by Dr. Sam Dorf one hour before each performance. This opera is for mature audiences. For tickets or more information, please call 888.228.3630 or visit

Reach DCP freelance writer Eric Street at

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Eric Street is Professor of Music at UD with a doctorate from Indiana University. His Carnegie Hall debut led to performances in 36 countries on six continents. An opera lover, he’s taught Opera History and accompanied over two-dozen singers from the Metropolitan and NYC Opera. Reach him at


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