To lose your child to a violent death is an unthinkable tragedy.
But what if your child dies because he’s taken the life of someone else’s child?
In one of the most piercing and provocative moments in the opera “Dead Man Walking,” a Fresno Grand Opera production opening Saturday, May 7, the mother of a man condemned to Death Row for murder makes a plea before a parole board.
Don’t kill my boy, the mother says. I know he did a terrible thing. But how will killing him help anyone here?
Also at the hearing is the father of the murdered woman.
The father is angry. He tells the parole board: You don’t know what it’s like to raise your child, to pray for your child, to see your child go out the door and the last words you say to your child are not “I love you,” because you don’t know the enormity of the moment, but “Did you clean your room?”
There is anguish all around.
“They are singing their pain,” says Sister Helen Prejean, a Roman Catholic nun, author of the book “Dead Man Walking” and one of the anti-capital-punishment movement’s most well-known personalities.
When Prejean recounted that scene in her 1993 book, she captured the pain in words on a page. When the story was made into the 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, the actors and director captured the pain in the immediacy and intimacy of action.
But to put that moment to music – to have that mother and father express their feelings through song – is perhaps the most intense experience of all. Opera is the mother of all art forms when it comes to expressing deep emotions.
“It touches parts of our hearts we don’t even know about because that’s what music does to us,” Prejean says.
Much of the power of “Dead Man Walking” comes from its determination to be more than just a rallying cry against capital punishment.
“It’s not just about the death penalty – it’s about being heard,” says Prejean, who came to Fresno in March to talk about the production. “It’s my story, but it’s your story. It’s all of our stories, of those who get awakened.”
She’s thankful the opera version of her story is continuing the discussion.
“God bless brave directors like Matthew Buckman, who’s bringing it here,” Prejean tells the crowd gathered at the St. Paul Newman Center. People weren’t clamoring to bring this opera to Fresno. But he knows the great journey you’ll be able to take with it.”
Buckman is general director of Fresno Grand Opera (and also Modesto’s Townsend Opera, which he jointly runs). He agrees he’s taking a chance here: “It’s a risky thing for a community to present this opera because it’s a sensitive subject,” he says.
When Buckman took over both companies in 2014, he promised to go far beyond programming the standard 19th century repertoire that is the standard for many regional opera companies and offer provocative and accessible works that touch people’s lives today.
He signaled the change with last season’s successful “A Streetcar Named Desire,” and with “Dead Man Walking,” he ups the ante even higher, offering a production that not only offers a recent storyline but tackles one of the hot-button issues of our day.
In the opera, Sister Helen (played by Laura Krumm) receives a letter from a man named Joseph De Rocher (Christopher Magiera), a convicted murderer on Louisiana’s Death Row. He asks her to be his spiritual counselor. She agrees, although her fellow nuns have reservations. As she gets to know De Rocher, she becomes certain that the government should not be in the practice of putting people to death.
Yet it isn’t an easy position to take, especially when she confronts the families of the victims. At one point in the opera, the Sister Helen character can hear the voices of everyone encouraging her to give up her fight: her fellow nuns, the warden, the prison chaplain, the parents. It’s another moment when music is perhaps the best way to reflect inner turmoil.
Though the opera is ambiguous when it comes to advocating a point of view, it’s clear about the crime itself. The audience sees the killings in a prologue. This isn’t a case of possible mistaken identity.
Many people argue against capital punishment because of the possibility of killing an innocent person. (Indeed, Prejean points out that more than 150 people on Death Row have been exonerated because of new evidence confirming their innocence.) For the nun, however, her opposition to capital punishment goes beyond just being afraid of making a mistake.
Yes, the Old Testament talks about the death penalty. But decades of advocacy have prepped Prejean well, and she can dish out her own scriptures. (She calls it “biblical quarterbacking.”) She tells the story of being a guest on a conservative talk-radio show and being confronted by a caller pointing out a Bible verse condoning death for murderers. She asked the caller to flip in his Bible a few pages away, to a verse commanding death for adulterers, too. Is that what he would want?
In the late 1990s, Prejean learned that composer Jake Heggie at San Francisco Opera wanted to write an opera based on the material. The librettist would be Terrence McNally, the highly regarded Broadway playwright (“Ragtime,” “Master Class”).
Prejean thought: Why not?
When she met with Heggie, who has since gone on to become one of the most highly regarded opera composers of his generation, she was specific with him:
“Jake, I’m going to tell you this. I don’t know boosqua (one of her colorful Louisiana expressions) about opera. But I’ve got two requests. One: The theme will be redemption. For everybody. And the other thing: You’re not going to do that atonal music, like when we come out and we can’t even hum the melody.”
Heggie assured her he’d write a tuneful score. The opera premiered in San Francisco in 2000.
Buckman wants to reassure Fresno Grand Opera patrons on this point: “Dead Man Walking” has beautiful, accessible music – which is also one of his major programming goals. He even brought Heggie to Fresno in February to meet with Fresno State composition students and spread the word. (Buckman knows how to hustle. Isn’t it impressive to bring both the author of the book on which the opera is based and the composer of the music to town beforehand?)
At that workshop, Heggie tells the students he got his big break getting the chance to work with McNally because of Renee Fleming, for whom Heggie had been composing art songs.
“He called me out of the blue, and that became ‘Dead Man Walking,’ ” he says.
McNally gave Heggie the ultimate compliment, really, by telling him he could cut his work.
“Crossing stuff out in Terrence McNally’s libretto, that’s pretty nervy, right?” Heggie says. “But he gave me permission. He told me, ‘I’m not a poet, I’m not a novelist. I’m a playwright. What I’m going to do is write a play for you that I hope inspires music.’ ”
For Prejean, who has a sequel to “Dead Man Walking” out, titled “The Death of Innocents,” this long and amazing journey has been her own little miracle. “I wrote a book!” she proclaims. “I never wrote a book before.”
And from that came a film and an opera. All she asks is that viewers keep an open mind as they contemplate capital punishment, an act that she calls a secret ritual because we are so far removed from witnessing it.
“What the eye does not see, the heart does not feel,” she says. “Art holds back the curtains and shows us what’s going on right under our noses.
Dead Man Walking
- 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 7
- Saroyan Theatre, 700 M St.
- www.fresnograndopera.org, 559-442-5699
- Also: a Fresno Grand Opera preview recital featuring baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis and tenor Robert Norman will be 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 3, at Mia Cuppa Caffe, 620 E. Olive Ave. Tickets $10-$25.