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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