NEW YORK (AP) — Sister Helen Prejean remembered when she first spoke with Jake Heggie about adapting her book “Dead Man Walking.”
“I don’t know boo-scat about opera,” she told him. “I just got two requests. One, you’re not going to do that atonal thing, are you? Are we going to be able to hum a tune when we come out? And the other thing, I just want to hear from you is it got the theme of journey of redemption.”
The most-performed 21st century opera reaches the Metropolitan Opera for the season’s opening night Tuesday in a production by Tony and Olivier Award winner Ivo van Hove starring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen.
“All of a sudden the piece has more resonance than ever,” Heggie said. “And that’s here as well as internationally, because it’s still a debate among a lot of people. It’s established in a lot of these abolitionist countries that there is no death penalty — the government, we don’t kill people for their crimes. And yet there are a lot of people who still wish that they would.”
Prejean was a nun at New Orleans’ Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille when she became spiritual adviser to a pair of men on death row in 1984.
“The book was just a blooming miracle,” the 84-year-old Prejean recalled, crediting her editor Jason Epstein for forcing her to add focus on the victims and their families.
Published in 1993, “Dead Man Walking” has sold nearly 800,000 copies, according to Knopf Doubleday. Tim Robbins adapted it into a 1995 movie that earned Susan Sarandon the Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Prejean.
Now 62, Heggie studied piano and composition at UCLA, receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1984. He gave up playing after he was diagnosed with focal dystonia, a muscular condition that affected his right hand. He took public relations jobs with the UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance, Cal Performances and the San Francisco Opera, and spent five years retraining his hand to play piano. He was writing art songs on his own time and showed his work to mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade.
San Francisco Opera general director Lotfi Mansouri asked Heggie whether he had considered writing an opera and sent him to New York to meet with playwright Terrence McNally. While Mansouri suggested an adaptation of the French film “Les Belles de Nuit (Ladies of the Night),” McNally about a year later proposed “Dead Man Walking.”
“Sondheim actually said to me: 50% of the success of any project is the idea of a story. It’s finding the story that’s going to set you on fire,” Heggie said, recounting composer Stephen Sondheim’s advice.
Robbins combined the two inmates into one and altered the execution from the electric chair to lethal injection, and Heggie and McNally followed that approach. Their work premiered at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House on Oct. 7, 2000, with Joe Mantello directing Susan Graham as Sister Helen and von Stade as the convict’s mother. After the prologue depicting the murders, the opera opens with a recurring hymn: “He will gather us around.”
Joshua Kosman in the San Francisco Chronicle wrote the score was “marked by gorgeous flights of lyrical breadth, punchy rhythmic byplay and orchestration” but added “it is certain to dismay the apostles of novelty and progress, those for whom art must be either wholly new or worthless.”
DiDonato first sang as Sister Helen in a 2002 New York City Opera production, then reprised the role at Houston in 2011 and Madrid in 2018. Heggie knew DiDonato from her time at San Francisco’s Merola program for young artists and recommended her to City Opera. Since then, she has gone on to Sing Sing Correctional Facility in Ossining, New York, and the Illinois Youth Center in Chicago for music classes, deepening her appreciation of Prejean’s message.
“I’ve had so much life experience since then and in particular going into prisons and doing work in prisons and meeting men who all have been convicted of murder, who are guilty of murder, and interacting with them and learning more about the justice system.” she said. “And having lived the last two decades of this world that has gotten a little bit further and further away from the idea of love, universal love.”
Von Hove heightens the drama with video closeups and a minimalist Jan Versweyveld set eliminates cellblock bars. Heggie estimates this is roughly the 75th international production of “Dead Man,” a pandemic-delayed staging first set to open in April 2021.
Graham sings de Rocher’s mother, connecting this cast to the original. A Times Square simulcast was planned for Tuesday and the Oct. 21 matinee will be televised to movie theaters around the world. The Met and Carnegie Hall plan to present excerpts at Sing Sing on Sept. 28 with DiDonato, Sister Helen as the narrator and inmates as the chorus.
There have been 1,575 executions in the U.S. since the Supreme Court allowed the death penalty to be reinstated in 1976, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Twenty-four states have death penalty laws, 23 do not and three have governor-imposed moratoriums, the center said.
“I have accompanied six human beings to execution, I’ve been with them and they’re suffering in the last hours, counting last hours,” Prejean said. “I have seen the suffering and it’s hidden from the public. It’s almost a secret ritual. Every time I see it portrayed, that I know the movie is being shown or the opera, I feel joy at that, that I know that people are being brought close to one of the deepest human rights issues of our day, the inalienable right to life of human beings.”