The Journey of Dead Man Walking
by Jake Heggie

It’s hard to believe now, but when Terrence McNally and I first met in New York in 1996 to discuss a possible opera collaboration, it was a comic work that the producer had in mind. Something light and celebratory for the millennium. Being almost completely unknown as a composer and having this incredible opportunity placed before me, I was hardly in a position to disagree with the general director of the San Francisco Opera, Lotfi Mansouri. Terrence, however, was. And he did. He could not have been less interested in such a project and he was too busy to consider anything else at the time. He was moving to a new apartment, getting ready to film Love! Valour! Compassion!, and in the midst of writing other shows.

With Terrence’s famous passion for opera and my devotion to composing for the operatic voice, Lotfi believed adamantly that this collaboration must happen. So he removed the mandate of comedy and asked us to find a story that would inspire both of us. The field was wide open. My admiration for Terrence’s work and his fantastic instincts for theater led me to trust that he would come up with a great idea. I had no expectation what that might be. I just hoped it would be something that I, too, would feel moved and inspired by. In June of 1997, Terrence arrived in San Francisco. The two of us sat down to lunch and he brought out a list of ten ideas, only one of which he really wanted to do. He wouldn’t tell me which it was. He started reading the list.

“Dead Man Walking.”

The hair on the back of my neck stood up and I started to hear music at once. I told him to stop. This was the right story. He asked if he could please continue reading the list, and he did. To this day, I can’t remember a single other idea he read because I was already figuring out how Dead Man Walking would sound in the opera house. What kind of architecture would the music have? What kinds of musical motifs? The range of characters and their transformations was incredible. There would be ample room for large ensembles and great possibilities to build emotional tension, to find transcendence in musical terms. Terrence and I talked about it non-stop for the next two days. Lotfi was thrilled and went to work immediately to secure the rights and look for funding. To make sure I had what I needed to work, Lotfi made me San Francisco Opera’s first composer-in-residence.

Why was the story so compelling to us? Sister Helen Prejean, a Louisiana nun, becomes the spiritual advisor to a convicted murderer on death row and accompanies him to his execution. She experiences a journey most of us cannot begin to imagine and becomes a witness to a level of grief and anguish that even she had not imagined. Parents. Children. Families. Torn apart. And in the midst of all the grief, tragedy, loss, and anger, it is love that transcends, unites, and redeems. Very operatic stuff.

Terrence and I both felt strongly that we wanted our opera to be a contemporary American drama. Dead Man Walking is a story of our time, but it has a sense of timelessness to it. It is a distinctly American story, but it has universal resonance. The drama is such that it makes sense for people to sing and it is large enough to fill an opera house, yet it is incredibly intimate. It is a story that takes us deep into the most difficult struggles we can experience as human beings. It takes us to places that only get intensified with music. The more we talked about it, the more it seemed like an opera just waiting for the music.

We were determined not to fall into a few obvious traps. As much as we admired and respected Sister Helen and her non-fiction book Dead Man Walking, this was not going to be a documentary or a biography. It would also not be a “soap-box” opera trying to push a political agenda. And we did not want to try to recreate Tim Robbins’ brilliant movie, either. We would go from the book, changing and adapting it to work specifically for the opera stage. Our goal was to tell the story honestly and without any preaching – to go with Sister Helen on her journey to that difficult place and to let people make up their own minds.

Sister Helen was in complete accord on all of these points. Supportive and enthusiastic from the start, she generously offered us flat-out permission to do whatever we needed to do to her story so that it would work on the opera stage, with only one mandate: it had to remain a story of redemption. Right before the announcement of the project, in March of 1998, Sister Helen called me and said in a very thick Louisiana accent, “When they called and told me that San Francisco wanted my permission to make an opera out of Dead Man Walking, I said, ‘Well of COURSE we’re gonna make an opera out of Dead Man Walking!’ But, Jake, I don’t know boo-scat about opera, so you’re gonna have to educate me.”

Why is Sister Helen such an operatic character? Against the enormous background of the prison system, death row, and a man convicted of a monstrous crime, there is this one small woman and her faith: her belief in the individual dignity of every person on this earth. She travels this path as a kind of “everyman,” and it is easy for us to go along with her: from the security of working with children in the projects, to meeting a convicted killer, then his family, then the families of the murder victims, to an execution chamber, all propelling her to a place of spiritual crisis and ultimate resolution. At first, Sister Helen seems like one of your gal pals with a great sense of humor and a zest for life. When the journey begins, neither we, nor she, are aware of what incredible bravery and power there is inside her when she is tested. But I think it puts all of us to the test. How much could I take? How far could I go? How strong am I? What are my convictions?

It is this that makes all of the characters in the story operatic, for they’re all regular folks thrown into a tornado, all being tested, strained, and pushed to the edge. As for the concept of capital punishment, the story puts a human face on it and takes it out of the abstract. It’s no longer a comfortable question one can consider while watching television or reading the paper. Real people, real lives are at stake at every turn in this story.

Terrence told me from the beginning that he was not a librettist, he was a playwright. His intention was to write a play and to create language and situations that would inspire music. He recognized that an opera is about the music and that he would do whatever he could to serve that. If I had a musical idea that was taking me in a certain direction, I should follow it. If his words didn’t work for me, I was free to add my own and check with him later. It’s about the most generous and gratifying collaboration that a composer could hope for. Another goal in the creation of the opera was to explore a medium that was neither traditional theater nor traditional opera, but a real combination of the two: a music drama, an opera musical, opera theater, or perhaps finally, American opera theater.

For my part, I was clear that my musical language would not be overly complex. My compositional voice is based primarily on direct emotional portraits of characters. I wanted to create clear melodic and rhythmic motifs to propel a constantly moving tide of emotion with lyricism, without alienating the characters or the audience. The architecture of the piece was clear, too, from the start. A building of layers throughout the first act – a long crescendo to the point where Sister Helen faints from exhaustion, overwhelmed by the emotional intensity and the demands being made upon her. The second act, a gradual stripping away of layers to reveal the essence of what is at stake in the story: life and love. Terrence wrote the first act in four days at the end of March 1998. I started composing just before my 37th birthday (March 31) and was finished by August 1999. The premiere took place on October 7, 2000.

Sister Helen’s compelling journey continues to capture the imagination, and our opera, hopefully, continues to take people right along with her.

Article originally published by Michigan Opera Theatre. Reprinted with permission.