We do not customarily look to opera for moral edification. Examples abound: twins, separated at birth, reunite and conceive a superman child before one is killed by his father (Wagner’s Die Walküre); a polygamous American seduces and later abandons an Asian girl and their child (Puccini’s Madama Butterfly); through deceit, seduction, and murder a prostitute becomes empress of Rome and finds true love (Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea); to prove the inconstancy of feminine love a cynical aristocrat convinces two young lovers to seduce each other’s girlfriend (Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte). There are exceptions to this rule, of course (Beethoven’s Fidelio and Britten’s Billy Budd come to mind), but generally opera has been a dramatic form more devoted to slash–and–dash murder and mayhem than somber reflection and spiritual insight. Yet spiritual insight is just what the San Francisco Opera (SFO) has recently offered its patrons in at least two internationally significant productions. In October 2000, the SFO premiered American composer Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. In the fall of 2002 it presented the first American performance of Olivier Messiaen’s Saint François d’Assise.
In many ways the two works could not be more different. The one highlights a brutal and malevolent murderer, the second is about the most charitable Christian of the Middle Ages. The music of one, almost reactionary in its traditionalism, was written by a relatively unknown composer at the beginning of his career. The other, frequently and extravagantly dissonant, was composed at the close of an internationally recognized composer’s sixty–year career. In one a modern story with strong political and social implications is universalized into a morality tale; in the other medieval hagiography is shaped into a dramatic liturgy where matters of the world—politics, economics, and even time itself—are not so much ignored as made inconsequential. Yet the works are united not only by their artistic excellence but also by their fundamental themes of fear, love, and Christian redemption.
Jake Heggie’s piece was commissioned by the SFO in 1998 as part of his work as composer–in–residence. Selecting Terrence McNally as his librettist, Heggie chose the story of the relationship between a nun and a convicted killer drawn from Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the U.S. Sister Helen is real, but her book’s protagonist, Joseph De Rocher, is the fictional composite of several death row inmates with whom the nun worked at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.
Opening with a brutal scene in which De Rocher, helped by his brother, rapes and murders a young couple, the opera moves to Sister Helen teaching the spiritual “He Will Gather Us Around” to children at a charity shelter. De Rocher and the nun have been pen pals, and just one month before his execution the convict has asked her to visit him. The nun reluctantly agrees, and meets a bitter man who defiantly proclaims himself to be the victim of a frame–up. He asks her to be his spiritual advisor, and during the following two acts the nun accompanies the murderer, his family, and his victims’ families on the tortuous path to the execution. Just before his death, the murderer confesses to the nun the full story of his crime and asks the parents of his victims to forgive him, hoping that they will find some relief in his death.
After its first performance, the San Francisco Chronicle called the opera “something of a masterpiece” and the Manchester Guardian wrote that it “makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theater since West Side Story.” Because of the demand for tickets, the SFO extended the original seven performances to nine. The opera was again hailed when the New York City Opera presented it in the fall of 2002, and productions have been mounted by the Cincinnati Opera, Opera Pacific, the Austin Lyric Opera, and the State Opera of Southern Australia. In 2002, Erato released a two–CD set of the opera’s original San Francisco performance and PBS broadcast a documentary on the making of the opera.
No wonder San Francisco had to extend its run and opera companies everywhere are eager to mount the work. It is gripping. McNally’s libretto is perhaps the best ever written by an American and Heggie matches the story with an inventive and lyric score that becomes more moving and admirable upon each hearing. Not since Benjamin Britten has a composer shown both such a sure command of dramatic pacing and such a keen ear for the rhythmic setting of English. In a series of eighteen scenes Heggie and McNally move us through self–doubt, exultation, prayer, vengeance, tragedy, self–discovery, repentance, and ultimately redemption. The opera is peopled with deeply drawn characters; even the incidental ones—the members of the murderer’s family, a highway patrolman, the warden, the parents of the murderer’s victims—are multidimensional. Heggie and McNally do not mute the violence of their subject: the opening scene and the hatred of the victim’s family toward the murderer are both unsparingly presented, yet the generally dark path to execution is lightened by lovely—and appropriate—comic moments. And De Rocher’s final confession to Sister Helen, which in lesser hands could have seemed abrupt, contrived, and even corny, is thoroughly convincing and deeply moving.
Operatic villains are generally easy to create; heroines, and especially religious ones, are less so. Verdi’s Iago, Puccini’s Scarpia, and Gounod’s Méphistophélès all make the women against whom they conspire seem wooden by comparison. The murderer Joseph De Rocher is a powerfully drawn figure, yet Heggie never lets the murderer overshadow Sister Helen. Heggie saves his best music for Sister Helen and in so doing creates a major artistic portrayal of a woman of faith. The role very well may become, along with Richard Strauss’ Octavian, one of the most important and rewarding roles for a mezzo–soprano in the repertory.
But despite the importance of the nun and Joseph De Rocher for the story, the opera really isn’t about them. And, although it can be interpreted as such, neither is it primarily a political indictment of state execution. (Oddly enough, it can actually be seen as a strong statement in support of the death penalty since it is through the confluence of the nun’s care to the murderer, along with the imminence of his death, that De Rocher is finally brought to the self–recognition that, in turn, makes his redemption possible.) Rather, the opera is about the path to salvation—or as Sister Helen sings in the opera’s only true aria, “This journey. This journey to Christ. This journey to my God. This journey to myself. To my Jesus. To this man. This journey to the truth. . . .” Heggie’s “dead man walking” is every man. Everyone in the story—the nuns, the condemned men on death row, the murderer’s mother and family, the victims and their parents, the warden, the cop, the priest—is making that journey. It is frequently a terrible journey, but they are all on it, hurting or helping each other along the way, stumbling, starting again, sometimes going horribly wrong. When Sister Helen tries to teach her students the spiritual at the opera’s beginning, she falters, distracted. At the opera’s final moment, after the murderer has finished his own journey, she sings it again, easily and radiantly. Convoluted, twisted, terrible, and fogged though the path may be, God stands at its end, eager to gather us all in His embrace.
Through the course of the opera’s violence, the desperation of its characters, the nobility of simple deeds, and the determination of Sister Helen and her fellow nuns to be Christ for others, Heggie’s music reaches beyond the proscenium to gather us up into the chorus of hope and redemption.
Part II of this article will appear in the March 2003 issue.
Michael Linton is Head of the Division of Composition and Music Theory at Middle Tennessee State University.