It has taken nearly two decades for the Lyric Opera of Chicago to finally stage Dead Man Walking. But that's just a blink of an eye considering the more than four centuries of operatic history.
Dead Man Walking premiered in at San Francisco Opera in 2000. It was general director Lotfi Mansouri who came up with the idea of commissioning the gay collaborative team of composer Jake Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally to write their first opera together.
"Terrence thought of doing Dead Man Walking, and I was immediately struck that it was a brilliant idea," said Heggie during a recent visit to Chicago. "I was set on fire musically and creatively."
Dead Man Walking takes its inspiration from Sister Helen Prejean's autobiographical 1993 book of the same name detailing her experiences as the spiritual adviser to two Louisiana death-row inmates: Elmo Patrick "Pat" Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. Like director Tim Robbins' 1995 film adaptation ( which won Susan Sarandon an Academy Award for playing Prejean ), the opera conflates the two men into the single character of Joseph De Rocher.
Heggie said that McNally was a very generous collaborator. And as a well-known opera lover ( as reflected in his plays like Master Class and The Lisbon Traviata ), McNally knew that the music should take precedence over his libretto.
"[McNally] told me early on, 'If you feel music starting to take you on a journey, go,'" Heggie said. "'I'll rewrite words, you rewrite words, whatever you need. Just follow the music.'"
Initial Dead Man Walking reviews were great, and other companies clamored to produce it. Heggie is proud to note that by the time Dead Man Walking reaches the Metropolitan Opera in New York during the 2020-21 season, the opera will have been produced by 70 different international companies and schools ( including a 2015 Northwestern University production ).
Heggie has gone on to write more operas. Three Decembers and Moby Dick were both respectively staged by Chicago Opera Theater in 2010 and 2019, while Heggie re-teamed with McNally for the contemporary 2015 comedy Great Scott.
In spring 2020, Chicago Fringe Opera stages Heggie's revised 2016 work Two Remain ( Out of Darkness ), which is based upon the separate journals of two World War II Holocaust survivors. But Heggie is amazed that his most-produced work continues to be the one that established his career as an operatic composer.
Prejean is also heartened by the success of Dead Man Walking as an opera. Visiting Chicago as part of events tied to the Lyric premiere, Prejean suggested that opera was "the fullest art form of all because it's live drama with music to instruct the heart."
"I am at the service of this story because of what I witnessed," said Prejean about her visceral reaction to being in attendance for Sonnier's 1984 execution by electrocution.
"That night right out side the gates of ( Louisiana's Angola State Prison ), the first thing I did was throw up," Prejean said. "I had never witnessed a human being being rendered completely defenseless and killed."
Prejean became an activist against capital punishment, which she further explored in her 2004 book The Death of Innocents.
Prejean's latest memoir, River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, was released in August. It details Prejean's upbringing and spiritual journey to becoming a Roman Catholic nun. She considers herself very lucky to have experienced the reforms that grew out of the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s.
"Nobody benefited more from that than nuns," said Prejean, noting that many semi-cloistered and unquestioning sisters like herself would turn outward toward the society around them to further basic human rights.
"No one should be treated with disrespect simply because of the color of their skin, or their gender or their sexual orientation," Prejean said. "I'm realizing the importance of getting religion right, because religion is being used in terrible ways to oppress peopleincluding [( former U.S. Attorney General]Jeff Sessions quoting Romans 13 to uphold the separation of children from their parents at the border. Is that not unspeakable?"
In terms of her legacy, Prejean pooh-poohed any notions of Dead Man Walking "canonizing" her as a character in the standard operatic repertory. Prejean was also diplomatic not to name any favorites among the famous opera singers who have portrayed her like Susan Graham ( who originated the role of Sister Helen ), Joyce DiDonato ( featured on the 2012 CD recording from Houston Grand Opera ) or Jamie Barton ( earlier this year at Atlanta Opera ).
For the Lyric, lesbian soprano Patricia Racette makes her role debut as Sister Helen. Meanwhile, Susan Graham has graduated to playing the fraught mother Mrs. De Rocher.
"[Patricia Racette] is such an amazing actress, and I think she will be stunning," Heggie said. "And I think Ryan McKinny is going to be great as Joseph De Rocher. I've known Ryan probably 12 to 13 years and he's become a big Wagnerian. He'll be amazing because he's a very visceral performer."
The Lyric warns that director Leonard Foglia's Dead Man Walking production "contains nudity, graphic violence and explicit language." Much of this occurs at the start as Joseph DeRocher commits the murders of two teenagers.
Far from being scandalized, Prejean admires McNally's decision to include this violent scene because audiences are "not using any kind of moral energy or creative energy to figure out if he did it or not."
"Our main goal in writing Dead Man Walking was to bring people into this very difficult dialoguenot tell them how they should feel," Heggie said. "Are we for vengeance or for forgiveness? Do we believe in redemption or do we only believe in damnation? What does make us stronger as a society? All these questions come up because of this piece. And it's also a story of parents and children. What's more timeless than that?"
Dead Man Walking is at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Dr., for six performances only Nov. 2-22. Tickets are $39 to $279; call 312-827-5600 or visit LyricOpera.org .