The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: We are all “Dead Men Walking.” After the tears come the thoughts, as The Ear takes in the Madison Opera.

May 1, 2014
4 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

To my ears and eyes, the reviews were justifiably unanimous: The Madison Opera scored an unqualified artistic success with the two performances of its production last weekend of composer Jake Heggie’s and librettist Terrence McNally’s opera “Dead Man Walking.” (Below, in a photo by James Gill, is the penultimate scene, as the shackled convicted killer prepares for his execution at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola with the prison warden, prison guards and prison chaplain.)

Dead Man Walking near end James GIll

In case you missed those reviews or have forgotten what they said, here is a link to Mikko Utevsky’s review for this blog, along with links to other reviews by John W. Barker fo Isthmus and Greg Hettmansberger for Madison Magazine.

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/27/classical-music-review-madison-operas-dead-man-walking-packs-an-emotional-punch-that-will-leave-you-changed-it-is-that-good-the-last-performance-is-this-afternoon-at-230/

I agree with what all that those discerning reviewers said. But my purpose for writing today is different.

After taking in the powerful musical drama, which stands out and above the Madison Opera’s many previous successes, I found “Dead Man Walking” powerful but also thought-provoking.

It deserves a second later and more considered look, and that is what this posting is. After the tears – and many, if not most, in the audience left with wet faces – came the thoughts. These are mine:

I now understand even better why a prosecutor and a judge in Madison both told me that if Wisconsin had capital punishment, they would no longer practice criminal law. I find I am in complete agreement with them.

The death penalty is just too iffy and wrong  — when the Illinois governor suspended it, Death Row had a wrongful conviction rate higher than 50 percent — too discriminatory and too inhumane. It is simply not worthy of us. Crime does not justify crime.

One particularly touching moment in the opera when was one victim’s father (seated far left in the photo by James Gill of victims’ families witnessing the execution of Joseph De Rocher, who killed the young man and raped and killed the young woman) says that the death of the murderer will not bring him peace about the loss of his daughter.

Dead Man Walking victims families James Gill

That said, I have to add that the opera is not really about capital punishment and the death penalty. It is about love. To be sure, it is not about the romantic or erotic kind of love. It is about “agape,” that more spiritual kind of love that is embodied by Sister Helen Prejean in her relationship with the convicted murderer, and in his with her. It is about the truest, most Christian kind of love -– and I say that as a person who is not at all religious.

If you had to pick one line about what the opera is all about, it would be when spiritual advisor Sister Helen Prejean asks convicted murder Joseph De Rocher to look at her face while he is being executed. “We all deserve to have the last face we see in this world be the face of love.”

In our final moments, isn’t that what we all want and hope for?

Dead Man Walking  Who will walk with me? James Gill

In that sense, I thought later, we are all of us “dead men walking.” We may not know the date, time and reason for our “execution.” And we may not know whether the “death chamber” will be our bedroom, our car, our home, a hospital room, a hospice room or someplace else.

But make no mistake: Mortality is the human condition, and we never or rarely accept it as deserved. Except for severe pain or disability, we all want more and we all die protesting our death and the death of our loved ones. (Below are Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher and Daniela Mack as Sister Helen Prejean.)

Dead Man Walking  2 Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack

And talk about being art imitating reality – or, as Oscar Wilde said, reality imitating art! And that is another key to the universality of “Dead Man Walking.”

Even as I am writing this, on the radio and in other media are two stories about capital punishment. One is a botched execution of Clayton Lockett that was done with a “new” and unexplained cocktail of lethal drugs cocktail, in Oklahoma. The other is story about a Wisconsin woman who is asking the parole board to pardon the killer of her daughter because she has experienced forgiveness. And, she adds, “forgiveness is not for the criminal, for the other person, but for ourselves.”

That could be right out of “Dead Man Walking,” which may indeed be “issue art” but is hardly a “lecture play” or a didactic treatment of capital punishment. It is a human story, in which all characters are victims of one kind or another.

Which is also why it is hard to accept the fact that “Dead Man Walking” is now 14 years old. It seems as current, as relevant, as today’s news headlines do — or even as tomorrow’s headlines will, and headlines for a long time to come.

Execution chamber

And that takes me to another thought.

So much traditional opera, from George Frideric Handel and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to Giuseppe Verdi and Giacomo Puccini, is historically based on successful drama and plays, sometimes novels or short stories, often by celebrated and successful or popular writers like William Shakespeare, Pierre de Beaumarchais, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Graham Greene, Tennessee Williams, or from folk-lore and myth, like Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle.

But maybe, just maybe, the secret to successful and powerful, emotionally moving contemporary opera, is to rely on controversial non-fiction, to ground the story in reality.

I am generally not an opera fan. Too much of the drama and too many of the plots seem silly or contrived to me. But if you are lucky, the music is strong enough to overcome that handicap. Yet too much contemporary opera lacks that kind of powerful music.

Now I was knocked out by “Dead Man Walking,” but I can’t claim to have walked out of Overture Hall in the Overture Center humming any tune that lingered.

Still, I found Jake Heggie’s very textural and atmospheric music convincing, involving and compelling. True, I kept thinking that Heggie (below), like much of Giuseppe Verdi and especially Wagner, often has a better way with instruments than with voices – at least to my taste.

Jake Heggie

So in all modesty, I want to suggest that Heggie should extract a half-hour long symphonic suite from this opera score for orchestras to perform. It could be much the way composer Daron Hagen distilled an instrumental suite from “Shining Brow,” his operas about Frank Lloyd Wright that was premiered by the Madison Opera. Or Richard Strauss’ sublime suite from “Der Rosenkavalier.”

Certainly, the music has a range of tone from the eerie, fluttering harmonies at the opening up to the powerful rhythms and loud sounds of the death scene climax and finale. Just listen to the excerpts from a production by the Sydney Opera in a YouTube video at the bottom.

Such a suite would also help “Dead Man Walking” reach as large a public as possible – and I would sure like to see that happen.

I also would like to know if others who heard the score agree about that. So leave your opinion about that — or other matters — in the COMMENT section.

There are other things to say.

Terrence McNally (below) is a master librettist, with a refined and practical sense of pacing that includes comic relief. The scene where Sister Helen is caught speeding in a car is not unlike the porter scene in “Macbeth” or the gravedigger’s scene in “Hamlet.” It adds to the humanness of the story and the characters. With such relentless intensity at hand, we need an occasional break.

Terrence McNally

Here are links to the insightful interviews with both composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally that freelance writer Michael Muckian did for this blog:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/classical-music-qa-composer-jake-heggie-talks-about-how-writing-dead-man-walking-changed-his-professional-and-personal-life-and-left-a-mark-on-his-heart-with-the-issue-of-capi/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/classical-music-qa-dead-man-walking-is-dramatic-not-didactic-morally-complex-neither-issue-art-nor-a-lecture-opera-says-librettist-a/

I would also add that rarely has a cast struck me as so superbly matched in terms of quality of singing and acting. The production was the very model of ensemble work –- and I include in my plaudits the Madison Opera’s general director Kathryn Smith (below top, in a photo by James Gill) and its artistic director and conductor John DeMain (below middle, in a photo by Prasad) as well as the Madison Symphony Orchestra musicians, the many solo singers, the Madison Opera Chorus, the Madison Youth Choirs and the stage director Kristine McIntyre (below bottom).

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

John DeMain full face by Prasad

Kristine McIntyre color

I also found the spare sets, on loan from the Eugene Opera in Oregon, appropriate and ingenious in the way they used chain link fencing and metal bars.

What else can I say? Only that at the end of my life, when I am adding up the greatest musical experiences I have ever had, this production of “Dead Man Walking” will rank right near the top.

This blog’s reviewer Mikko Utevsky called the opera life-changing. I would only add that is also life-affirming.

So The Ear says: Thank You to all who made it possible.

You gave us art that we need, not just art that we want.

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Classical music review: Madison Opera’s “Dead Man Walking” packs an emotional punch that will leave you changed. It is that good. The last performance is this afternoon at 2:30 p.m. Don’t miss it. Plus, here are links to other rave reviews.

April 27, 2014
1 Comment

By Jacob Stockinger

Loyal readers of this blog know very well the name of Mikko Utevsky. The young violist and conductor is a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Music, where he studies with Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm and plays in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Chamber  Orchestra.

Utevsky, who has won awards and impressive reviews for his work in music education since his days at Madison’s East High School, is the founder and conductor of the Madison Area Youth Chamber Orchestra, which will perform its fourth season next summer. For more information, visit: http://www.madisonareayouthchamberorchestra.org  He has also been named the new Music Director of a local community orchestra, The Studio Orchestra. The ensemble has a website here: www.disso.org.

You can check out his many honors and projects by typing his name into the search engine on this blog site.

Utevsky offered The Ear a guest review of this weekend’s production of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” by the Madison Opera at the Overture Center. The last performance is today at 2:30 p.m. in Overture Hall. Tickets are $18-$108.

I immediately took him up on the offer. After all, he is a fine and perceptive writer who, you may recall, blogged for this post when he was on tour two summers ago with the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO) tour to Vienna, Prague and Budapest.

Here is the review by Mikko Utevsky (below):

Mikko Utevsky with baton

By Mikko Utevsky

“The Truth will set you free.”

Here, then, is The Truth:

There are no words for art like this. None suffices. The English language is inadequate when tasked with depicting an experience of the kind to which “Dead Man Walking” belongs.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

I was speechless for a long time after the final curtain, even when I finally stopped crying openly — those who know me can appreciate how rarely I am at a loss for words. The nearly full house reacted similarly, with a prolonged stunned silence before the clapping started and then built into a standing ovation. Then the whole house rose to its feet in unison when Michael Mayes took the stage for a bow.

However, I promised a review, and so a review there shall be, insofar as words can express what must be said.

The opera — musical drama would be a more appropriate term – by composer Jake Heggie (below top) and librettist Terrence Nally (below bottom) is a masterwork on the scale of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” Giacomo Puccini’s “La Boheme” or Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde,” and in every respect deserves to stand by their side in the repertory.

If anything, the opera is more deeply human than anything in the canon I have yet seen or heard. The libretto is skillfully crafted, capturing every character in life-like depth. Its score is masterful, propulsive, colorful, and powerfully moving, with influences from Mozart, Wagner and George Gershwin apparent. Remarkably, for a composer’s first opera, it balances to the stage apparently without effort. 

Here are links to previous posts with interviews featuring composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally:

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/22/classical-music-qa-composer-jake-heggie-talks-about-how-writing-dead-man-walking-changed-his-professional-and-personal-life-and-left-a-mark-on-his-heart-with-the-issue-of-capi/

https://welltempered.wordpress.com/2014/04/24/classical-music-qa-dead-man-walking-is-dramatic-not-didactic-morally-complex-neither-issue-art-nor-a-lecture-opera-says-librettist-a/

Jake Heggie

Terrence McNally

Not a note is lost from either orchestra or cast, for which joint credit should also be given to Artistic Director and conductor John DeMain (below in a photo by Prasad) and the musicians of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, who fill the pit.

John DeMain full face by Prasad

The singing is world-class. Baritone Michael Mayes lives and breathes the role of death-row convicted murderer Joseph DeRocher, portraying his inner demons with true clarity and conviction. Mezzo-soprano Daniela Mack, singing the role of Sister Helen Prejean for the first time (not that anyone would know) balances faith, doubt, and forgiveness with poignancy and eloquence.

Dead Man Walking  2 Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack

Susanne Mentzer is heartbreaking as DeRocher’s loving mother, and Alan Dunbar is equally so, standing out from the excellent quartet of the victims’ parents (with Jamie Van Eyck, J. Adam Shelton, and Saira Frank). Baritone Erik Larson, appearing as the motorcycle cop who stops Sister Helen for speeding, is also memorable, providing one of the only moments of levity in an otherwise powerfully dark show, and Karen Slack (below top) as Sister Rose exhibits powerful vocal skills and a capacity for comfort and mercy. (The photo, below bottom, shows, from left, Daniela Mack, Susanne Mentzer, Michael Mayes, Saira Frank, Alan Dunbar, Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck.)

Karen Slack 2

Dead Man Walking with  (from left) Daniela Mack, Susanne Mentzer, Michael Mayes, Saira Frank, Alan Dunbar, Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck

The brilliant stage direction by Kristine McIntyre (below) brings the whole production to life against the starkly effective scenery from the Eugene Opera in Oregon. The costumes, lighting and sound design are simple and successful.

Kristine McIntyre color

It would take too long to list every singer in the cast deserving of recognition, or every technical and visual aspect worthy of acknowledgement. But there is not a single weak link, and the whole company shows a total commitment to their art, from the last member of the chorus up through the principals, the orchestra, the director, Maestro DeMain, and General Director Kathryn Smith (below, in a photo by James Gill), to whom eternal gratitude is due for having the courage and vision to bring this work to the Madison stage.

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

This is opera. This is art. This is human expression at its most direct, at its most powerful, at its most deeply touching.

Go see “Dead Man Walking.”

You will come away changed.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Madison Opera production of “Dead Man Walking” production has received other rave reviews. For purposes of comparison, here are links to others:

Here is the review by John W. Barker (below) for Isthmus:

http://www.thedailypage.com/daily/article.php?article=42616&sid=f94c056bdd9b4be709a6a60deca6c020

John-Barker

Here is the review be Greg Hettmansberger (below) for Madison Magazine:

http://www.madisonmagazine.com/Blogs/Classically-Speaking/April-2014/Dead-Man-Walking-Conquers-Another-City/

greg hettmansberger mug

 

 

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Classical music Q&A: “Dead Man Walking” is morally complex and dramatic, not didactic, work — neither “issue art” nor a “lecture opera” — says librettist and dramatist Terrence McNally. The Madison Opera will perform it this Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 24, 2014
3 Comments

ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale, held from 12:15 to 1 p.m. at the First Unitarian Society of Madison, 900 University Avenue, features “Kassia and Friends” -– music for two sopranos, piano, violin, trumpet and bassoon. The program includes music by George Frideric Handel, Barbara Harbach, Lori Laitman, Alessandro Melani, Thomas Pasatieri and Eric Whitacre.

FUS1jake

By Jacob Stockinger

Today’s post, an interview with the award-winning playwright and opera librettist Terrence McNally, is by guest blogger Michael Muckian (below). He is a long-time Wisconsin music journalist who covers everything from grand opera to the Grateful Dead. He writes about theater, art, food, wine and travel, as well as financial services and other business topics. He is currently a freelance writer and independent corporate communications consultant.

This weekend, the Madison Opera will present Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” at 8 p.m. this Friday, April 25, and at 2:30 p.m. this Sunday, April 27 in Overture Hall at the Overture Center for the Arts in Madison.

The opera will be sung in English with project text in surtitles. Tickets are $18 to $121. Call (608) 258-4141 or visit www.madisonopera.org.

The opera does have a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language, and is not recommended for anyone under age 18.

PLEASE NOTE: Sister Helen Prejean and composer Jake Heggie will be in Madison and offer a FREE public discussion TONIGHT at 7 p.m. at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 1609 University Avenue. No reservations are needed.

Michael Muckian color mug

By Michael Muckian

Terrence McNally rose to fame as a playwright, musical theater writer and eventually, an operatic librettist. His best-known works are “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” “Corpus Christ,” “Master Class” and the musical adaptation of “Ragtime.” He is the winner of four Tony Awards, an Emmy Award, two Guggenheim Fellowships and numerous other honors. “Dead Man Walking,” written in collaboration with composer Jake Heggie, is one of his first operas.

Terrence McNally

What attracted you to “Dead Man Walking”? How hard was it to adapt Sister Helen Prejean’s work?

I wanted to write an opera based on issues — moral, political, social — that would engage a contemporary audience. I also wanted two strong central characters. Most contemporary operas are chastised for insufficiently compelling or interesting librettos. Sister Helen’s life and struggles for saving the life of condemned people had all the elements I was looking for.

The libretto is based on the idea of her life, not an actual character she dealt with. It is not based on the film, either. Joseph de Rocher and his mother are my creations. The opera is a response to the book and obviously resonates with memories of the film but it is not an adaptation of either one, the way that, say “Ragtime,” is an adaptation of E.L. Doctorow’s novel.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

What were the key themes you felt necessary to include in the opera?

The opera is about forgiveness. The issue of the death penalty is for the audience to wrestle with for themselves after they have experienced the opera. That said, it’s not an “issue” piece of art. It’s about love and forgiveness and facing the truth. (Below is a photo by James Gill of Daniela Mack playing Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes playing  Joseph DeRocher in the Madison Opera’s upcoming production.)

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

Did any of themes or experiences in the opera touch you personally? Did you have any personal experiences you drew on when writing the opera?

I think any intelligent American has a complex response to organized religion, our legal system and our own relationship to the less fortunate members of American life. Sister Helen (below) is proof that you can be a devout member of a religious belief system AND an activist for reform and have a huge and loving heart. She is one of my role models.  It is an honor — and challenge — to emulate and to know her.  Jake (Heggie) and I are very proud that she is proud of the opera we have made of her and her life’s work.

Sister Helen Prejean

Dead Man Walking” is an opera about social justice or, if you will, social injustice. Did writing he opera change or enhance your opinion of capital punishment?

I still wrestle with it. Intellectually and morally, it’s easy to be against it. But some crimes are so heinous my knee-jerk response still surprises me. Writing this libretto set me on a journey that is still unfolding.

How did you interact with Jake Heggie (below)? Was it libretto first, music after or did the two of you work more collaboratively?

We had many long discussions before I sat down alone to write the first draft and then we talked about that.

Jake Heggie

How does “Dead Man Walking” stand as a tale of redemption? Are there any victors in this story, or is everyone a victim?

I have answers to those questions, but I prefer the audience to answer those questions for themselves. This is not a lecture opera. It’s a human drama. We want people to think and feel. I love the ending. The mechanical sounds of the Death Machine followed by an a cappella human voice. I don’t think the orchestra plays for the last several minutes. I’d call that pretty fuckin’ innovative. (You can hear the Prelude and Prologue to “Dead Man Walking” in a YouTube video at the bottom)

What lessons can be learned from the opera?

That unconditional love and the truth shall set you free.

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