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February 5, 2015

“Dead Man Walking” Opera Reimagined

About two years ago, in a small performance venue in Boston, San Francisco-based composer Jake Heggie saw a scaled-down production of his opera “Dead Man Walking.” He’d composed it, his first, on commission for the San Francisco Opera, where it premiered in 2000. Since then it has received 40 productions worldwide.

Based on Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993, anti-capital-punishment memoir of working with Death Row prisoners at Angola State Prison, “Dead Man Walking,” with libretto by playwright Terrence McNally, focuses on the relationship between the nun and her spiritual advisee, Joseph De Rocher (birth name: Patrick Sonnier), scheduled to die for murdering a teenage girl. The opera follows Sister Helen’s lonely journey as she interacts with the warden, a colleague, the prison chaplain, the doomed prisoner and others while fighting her own internal battle to find forgiveness. (A 1995 movie of the same name, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, was also based on the memoir.)

To accommodate the reduced performance space, the Boston company had re-orchestrated the work, using fewer musicians. Heggie, known for such operas as “Moby-Dick” and others, loved it; it lent an intimacy to the story and sound. So he contacted Nicole Paiement, the French-Canadian-born founder/artistic director/conductor of San Francisco’s award-winning Opera Parallèle. “This works so well—would you consider doing something similar?” he asked her.

Paiement and her husband, Brian Staufenbiel, Opera Parallèle’s creative director, were eager to undertake the challenge. Since 2007, the adventurous contemporary opera company has presented 134 performances (30 of them world premieres), commissioned 20 new works and released 14 recordings. Paiement, with an international reputation for conducting new music and opera, is also Principal Guest Conductor at the Dallas Opera; Staufenbiel is a prominent stage director and designer.

Paiement’s re-orchestration calls for a 32-member, three-part chorus, which includes the San Francisco Girls Chorus; supernumaries; two actors (to play the two murder victims); plus the principal singers. It opens this month at Yerba Buena Center, a much smaller theatrical venue than the War Memorial Opera House. It is, however, the largest production, in terms of performers, that Opera Parallèle has yet staged.

“We’re not losing any colors,” emphasizes Paiement. “It will sound big: there are three percussionists and a lot of strings. Jake’s music needs that [“He writes so beautifully for strings,” interjects Staufenbiel], but it’s still smaller than the original.”

Over the course of eight scenes, “Dead Man Walking” has the deep and internal emotion, the intense, two-person interaction and the kind of sympathetic protagonist that seem, to the creators, an ideal fit for this slightly less grandiose atmosphere. Yet even as this new Opera Parallèle version illuminates the intimacy of the relationship between the nun and the murderer, Paiement and Staufenbiel give a fully theatrical staging to the grander moments as well. So, while the scenes between Sister Helen (Jennifer Rivera) and inmate De Rocher (Michael Mayes) will feel private, the more expansive scenes—say, the nun walking through the prison as a chorus of prisoners shout at her—will reverberate.

The modular stage set encompasses nine barred steel walls, flown in, which will rotate to form different shapes, and move around the stage to create, for example, the sense of the nun’s physical path; the choristers manipulate the walls. A rear, deconstructed prison wall features digital projections that extract and enhance certain dramatic elements of the piece in what Staufenbiel describes as decoupage. “The audience will be able to focus on the action onstage while getting information from the projections,” he says. For instance, in the opera’s prologue, which depicts the murder scene, audiences will see the killing both onstage and simultaneously in projections that will fill in location (which is lakeside) and emotion; you’ll see the girl’s frightened eyes up close, and the knife.

Among the lineup of designers, ODC choreographer KT Nelson is in charge of certain aspects of stage movement—not dancing per se, explains Paiement, but developing body language for the various characters. “We’re going to create a lot of silhouettes, rear-projecting behind them,” says Staufenbiel. “Each person will have their own type of movement.… It will enhance the visual tapestry.”

“Brian addresses the text and storytelling as if this were a play that is then put into music,” remarks Paiement, of Staufenbiel’s directorial approach. “That’s very important. Some operas you can just stand and sing. In ones like this, that are very relevant, with stories that connect with the audience, unless you work with the singers to become true actors, I think you lose a big aspect of the production.”

Of the vernacular libretto (McNally’s first), Staufenbiel exclaims, “It’s an amalgamation of [Sister Helen’s] entire book! He’s able to condense it and truncate it and allow us to get a sense of the whole journey she went on.…This is a show of contrasts, and Terrence knows when to leave things out and trusts Jake to fill in those emotions with music.”

“Every word has weight,” adds Paiement. McNally himself has said that of the libretto he gave to Heggie, he’d be surprised if Heggie actually used more than 60 percent of it; McNally knew from the start that Heggie would need to extract the essence of each scene and allow the music to provide its share of the story.

McNally’s writing is not only vernacular but also at times humorous (Sister Helen and De Rocher bond over a love of Elvis; Sister Helen, stopped for speeding on the way to the prison, is wryly comical). “What I love about it,” says Paiement, “is it balances moments where you can laugh and enjoy it and then it goes to the darker side of the story.… Even if the subject matter is difficult,” she adds, “it goes beyond death penalty pros and cons. It’s about redemption and a relationship and [the nun’s] spiritual journey.”

One of Opera Parallèle’s goals, continues Paiement, is to show that opera can connect to our own social issues. In the 17th and 18th centuries, operas were relevant to the times. “It’s a beautiful tradition to present works from the past,” she acknowledges, but in doing so, we bypass the power of art to comment on aspects of today’s society. Productions like “Dead Man Walking,” in the hands of a company like Opera Parallèle, demonstrate that contemporary opera has that power.

Feb. 20 22
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
701 Mission St., 415/978-2787

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