Hair-raising outrage and wailing angels7/9/2014
When composer Jake Heggie first heard someone suggest an opera of “Dead Man Walking” back in 1996, he also began to hear the music. As he puts it, “the hair on the back of my neck stood up.”
Heggie told this story before opening night at Des Moines Metro Opera, where I caught the talk and spoke with him privately. As for the production, the composer had nothing but praise: “wholly convincing,” he called it. Indeed, the set alone could raise your hackles. All bars and cages, steel gray above gray paving, it’s just right for “Dead Man Walking,” first performed in 2000 and rooted in the grim facts of America’s current prison system. As the show’s warden points out, singing in Dixie English like everyone else, he’s got 200 men on Death Row.
“And they’re all gonna die,” he sings.
Out of such cages, statistical and actual, the music must soar. The material remains the same as it was for Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, in the 1995 Oscar winner: a nun counsels a murderer, in the days before his execution, bringing him to redemption — freedom of a kind, for one prisoner at least.
So Heggie chose his praise well; his opera won’t work unless it’s “convincing.” At the DMMO, the warden was Ankeny native Kyle Albertson (also a veteran of New York’s Met), and the doomed men in his charge had clearly taken a toll; he sang with weary resignation. Wayne Tigges, as the father of the murdered girl, brought off a wrenching transition from blind rage to seeking better. The two leads, Elise Quagliata as Sister Prejean and David Adam Moore as the condemned Joseph De Rocher, paced their performances so as to end with their most shattering solos and ensemble contributions. I was left in tears as the entire cast rose to the challenge Heggie laid out for himself when he began to pull the work together: “songs that people can inhabit.”
Heggie claims he “couldn’t have asked for a better collaborator” when it came to story and lyrics. He worked with the distinguished playwright Terrence McNally, who agreed about “what was missing from contemporary opera.” This was “theater,” which Heggie defines as “a place of reflection, where anyone can experience the human drama.” So he and McNally knew their work had to start with “the outrage,” the rape-murder, a scene DMMO casts in nightmarish shadow. So too, the essential “human drama” is expressed neither by one of the victims, nor by their parents, but by the mother of the killer, sung by Margaret Lattimore. During her last appeal for a stay of execution, her voice rising out of its institutional barrens like an angel above an ashpit, the mother wails: “Haven’t we all suffered enough?”
Overheard in the Lobby: DMMO is also offering “La Traviata,” reviewed last week, and Rossini’s “Le Comte Ory.” CV
John Domini is Cityview’s “Play Mate” theater critic who pens our weekly Center Stage column. He is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com.