Five Questions: ‘Dead Man Walking’ composer Jake Heggie

· Mar. 10, 2014, 7:00 am
Michael Mayes in Dead Man Walking(Photo: Cliff Coles, courtesy of Eugene Opera)
Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s "Dead Man Walking."  
As such, Central City Opera's (CCO) Prisons, Compassion and Redemption Projecta multi-faceted exploration of the death penalty through a series of performances, panel discussions, film screenings and book signings happening both in Central City and Denver between March and July, comes at a timely moment. 
The cornerstone of CCO's programming is "Dead Man Walking," an opera by American composer Jake Heggie about a nun's relationship with a Louisiana death row inmate; the work is based on the acclaimed memoir of the same title by Sister Helen Prejean. The work will be performed at the Central City Opera House later this season (July 5 - 25.) 
Heggie, one of the world's most sought after composers of operas and other vocal music works, will be in Denver on March 13 to participate in a symposium on the death penalty and other themes related to "Dead Man Walking" alongside Prejean, District Attorney for the 18th Judicial District George H. Brauchler, Defense Mitigation Specialist Greta Lindecrantz and victim survivor Dana Sampson.  
On March 14, the composer will lead a master class at the Colorado Springs Conservatory, Colorado Springs. 
CPR: Central City Opera is hosting a symposium on the death penalty and "Dead Man Walking" at the Greek Orthodox Metropolis Cathedral, in Denver, on March 13. What role does your opera play in helping people to think their way through the ever-evolving and always fractious issue of capital punishment? 
Jake Heggie: The goal in writing the opera was to take this remarkable journey out of the abstract and put human faces on it - to trace the emotional, transformative and redemptive journey of the people involved. It was never our goal to create a polemic, to preach or to tell people how they should feel. Our eyes were on telling the story, bringing people into it and giving them the space to reflect and feel in their own way. The characters are fascinating and complex - they are not archetypes. These are people you might know caught up in an almost unimaginable situation. The opera is not an argument about the death penalty; it is the death penalty that raises the stakes to life or death at every moment. That's high drama and very operatic. 
These days, we have very few places where people go to reflect. One of those is the theater - and I include the opera house in that category. It's a chance to let the fullness of drama and music sweep you away to surprising places. And music can open us up to experiences and aspects of human nature we might not have suspected on the surface. 
CPR: "Dead Man Walking" is one of the most often performed contemporary works in the operatic repertoire. There have been close to 40 productions to date all over the world. Please tell us about a couple of your favorite productions of the piece that you've experienced and why these stagings have resonated for you in particular. 
Jake Heggie: The San Francisco Opera world premiere in 2000 was incredible because the stakes were so high. I was an unknown composer doing a very controversial project with an A-list team in an A-list theater. That was a magical night - the audience sat in stunned silence throughout and then erupted into cheers at the end. Also, it was terribly moving that Sister Helen was there, as were all the members of the movie: Susan Sarandon, Sean Penn and Tim Robbins. Plus, amazingly, Julie Andrews was there! She was my first "goddess" and favorite singing storyteller. 
The next would have to be the Dresden and Vienna productions. To see an American opera flourish in those grand old opera houses, to hear the audience respond just as it had in the United States, to feel the excitement and thrill, was incredible. In Vienna, "Dead Man Walking" was at the Theater an der Wien, built by Emanuel Schikaneder (Mozart's librettist for "The Magic Flute") and the house where Beethoven's "Violin Concerto" and "Sixth Symphony" had been premiered, not to mention the opera "Die Fledermaus." Incredible! 
CPR: The libretto for "Dead Man Walking," by Terrence McNally, is widely considered to be one of the most hard-hitting and eloquent in the history of contemporary opera. What makes McNally's adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean's book so powerful and how did you go about finding a musical form for McNally's words?
Jake Heggie: Terrence is not only a great man of the theater, but he also loves opera. Loves it. It seems to have a place in everything he writes. Plus, he has written books for musicals ("Ragtime," "Kiss of the Spider Woman," "The Rink") and he knows the stage - how it works, how pacing and character unfold, and what happens to all of that when music is introduced. He is not a self-conscious writer; it's all about the storytelling for him. It's in his bones. He told me early on, "I'm not a poet. I'm not a librettist. I'm a playwright. I will write you a play and hope to create situations and write language that inspires music." He was extremely generous and flexible in moving things around, responding to my own musical thoughts, allowing the music to take us to places we hadn't expected and allowing music to tell the things that words cannot. His libretto also insisted on a variety of American music: jazz, blues, rock, gospel, pop, etc. It was an incredible first operatic collaboration for us both. I'm thrilled to be working on another big opera with him now: "Great Scott" for the Dallas Opera, which opens in October 2015. 
CPR: The last time you collaborated with McNally was here in Denver when you premiered "At the Statue of Venus," a one-act musical scenario for soprano and piano which Opera Colorado commissioned for the opening of the Ellie Caulkins Opera House in 2005. How receptive do you find Colorado audiences to new music?
Jake Heggie: I think Colorado audiences like great drama as much as anybody - and if an extraordinary story is told well with compelling characters and beautiful music, exquisitely sung and staged, then what's not to like? I think "At The Statue of Venus" offered that to them - and I know "Dead Man Walking" will move them deeply. I think they'll also be surprised to discover there are some good laughs in the opera, too. There was an excellent production of the opera given at the University of Colorado at Boulder about seven years ago. It was so passionate and powerful that it completely took me by surprise and swept me off my feet! It was the first university production. Thrilling. And the audiences ate it up. 
CPR: What will Colorado audiences gain in particular from experiencing Central City Opera's production this season? 
Jake Heggie: "Dead Man Walking" is a grand opera with big drama, big music, big themes and big forces. Because this new production will take place in an intimate opera house of only a few hundred seats, the audience will feel the drama and music in ways they hadn't expected. It promises an intimacy and immediacy that will be extremely powerful. I've seen the opera done in smaller opera houses and the impact is extraordinary. The company has assembled an excellent cast of fine singing actors, headed by Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen and Michael Mayes as Joseph DeRocher. Jennifer is new to her role, but I've seen Mike Mayes sing Joe a few times and I can tell you nobody in the entire world has ever done it better or with more authority. I am thrilled that I get to be there on opening night to witness this exciting new vision of an opera that has now traveled around the world from the United States to Australia, Canada, South Africa, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, Ireland ... and now back to Central City. 

The Death Penalty/"Dead Man Walking" Symposium will take place on Thursday, March 13, 3:30-5:30 p.m. at the Greek Orthodox Metropolis Cathedral in Denver. The master class with Jake Heggie will take place on Friday, March 14, 4:30-6:00 p.m. at the Colorado Springs Conservatory, Colorado Springs. Both events are free and open to the public. For more information about the "Prisons, Compassion and Redemption Project" visit

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