The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Easter Sunday is a fitting time to think about death, forgiveness and redemption — and about the Madison Opera’s upcoming premiere production of Jake Heggie’s famed opera “Dead Man Walking” next Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

April 20, 2014
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By Jacob Stockinger

It is Easter Sunday — a day when Christians and many others around the world think about the spiritual meaning of death, redemption and forgiveness. That also makes it an appropriate time to think about certain pieces of music — say, the Passions and Cantatas of Johann Sebastian Bach — and certain operas. 

Take, for example, the Madison Opera’s upcoming production of the contemporary opera “Dead Man Walking.”

Later this week, The Well-Tempered Ear will feature interviews that arts critic Mike Muckian did with “Dead Man Walking” composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. (Below in a photo by James Gill are Daniela Mack as Sister Helen Prejean and Michael Mayes as the convicted killer facing execution Joseph DeRocher.)

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

Dead Man Walking Daniela Mack and Michael Mayes

But on this special day, to whet your appetite and set the stage, so to speak, with basic facts, here is an official press release:

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

Sets and costumes come from the Eugene Opera’s acclaimed production in Oregon.

Dead Man Walking Eugene Opera

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 carry a Parental Advisory because it contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language; it is not recommended for anyone under age 18.

The production is a Madison Opera and Upper Midwestern premiere, and “Dead Man Walking” is cathartic and humanizing, set to a stunning American score that ranges from hymns to zydeco.

With a libretto by Terrence McNally, “Dead Man Walking” is based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, which also served as the inspiration for the critically acclaimed 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

The opera tells of a nun’s journey as the spiritual advisor of 
a convicted murderer on Louisiana’s death row. From its shocking beginning to its emotionally searing final scene, this opera changes everyone who encounters it. Its stunning score and intense story combine into a work that the San Francisco Chronicle says, “must be reckoned something of a masterpiece – a gripping, enormously skillful marriage of words and music to tell a story of love, suffering and spiritual redemption.”

At bottom is a YouTube video of the production by the Houston Grand Opera, where Madison Symphony Orchestra music director and Madison Opera artistic director John DeMain worked before coming to Madison 20 years ago) with Joyce Di Donato, Frederica von Stade and Philip Cutlip in the title roles.

Dead Man Walking is, for me, unquestionably one of the greatest operas ever written,” says Madison Opera’s General Director Kathryn Smith (below in a photo by James Gill). “When I saw it in 2002 at New York City Opera, I was completely blown away by its music, its dramatic power, and the sheer theatrical intensity that seared particular scenes in my mind for a decade. I am thrilled to produce it in Madison with this stunning cast, and particularly honored that Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean are coming to Madison for opening night and to speak with our community the evening before.”

Kathryn Smith Fly Rail Vertical Madison Opera

“Dead Man Walking” also has special significance to conductor and Madison Opera Artistic Director John DeMain (below, in a photo by Harper Fritsch), who has a long history with the opera.

“From my very first encounter with “Dead Man Walking” at its 2000 premiere in San Francisco, I knew it was an opera for the ages, and one that I wanted to conduct and present to an ever-widening audience,” recalls DeMain. “I was fortunate to be able to create the second new production of the work, and conduct it in Orange County, Detroit, New York City, and its first international production in Australia.

“In every instance, this new opera connected viscerally with its audience for all the right reasons. It was a powerful, immensely moving drama with lyrical, memorable music, and a fine libretto. The playwright, Terrence McNally, knew exactly how to handle a sad and tragic situation with pathos, great humanity, and a wonderful sense of humor. “

John DeMain casual opera by Harper Fritsch

Maestro DeMain encourages local audiences, whether long-time devotees of opera or completely new to the art form, to experience “Dead Man Walking.”

“It is deeply spiritual, deeply moving, and deeply human with a score steeped in the American vernacular including the blues, which is so appropriate to New Orleans and the protagonist’s world,” he says. “This is a real opera that works the way all operas that we cherish work. Powerful arias, duets, and ensembles, sung by a variety of characters, all of whom we can identify with. I assure our Madison audiences that this is a riveting evening, a great moment in our history, and an occasion not to be missed.”

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