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Madison Opera’s Dead Man Walking Breaks New Ground

Apr. 3, 2014
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Rape, murder and its ultimate retribution dressed in 18th century garb constitutes nothing new when it comes to grand opera. Position such actions in a contemporary setting and create a scenario based on the real life events, however, and the narrative suddenly cuts closer to the bone in ways both compelling and disturbing.

Madison Opera will undertake this challenge with the Wisconsin premiere of contemporary composer Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. The opera, with a libretto by Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally and based on the life’s work of Sister Helen Prejean, runs April 25-27 in Overture Hall at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts.

The 2000 work is the first opera for Heggie, a composer of art songs for classical and Broadway luminaries like Renee Fleming and Audra McDonald, and McNally, the author or Corpus Christi and Master Class. It’s based on the work Sister Helen had done with death row inmates in her native Louisiana as chronicled in her book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty.

The opera is not a musical version of the 1995 Oscar-winning film with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, but it is no less compelling, according to Kathryn Smith, Madison Opera’s general director.

Issues of crime, punishment, redemption, reconciliation and forgiveness are in the headlines every day,” says Smith. “From the political to the personal, this opera is completely relevant and connects to the audience on an immediate level.”

Baritone Michael Mayes reprises his role of killer Joseph De Rocher, a composite of several real-life inmates Sister Helen counseled prior to the their execution. It’s a role Mayes has perfected over various runs of the opera, and the character’s heinous crime is reenacted in graphic detail during the opera’s prologue.

Madison Opera is preceding its late-April performance with more than a month’s worth of events, panel discussions and films that address the issue of capital punishment, including an April 24 discussion with both Heggie and Sister Helen prior to the opera’s premiere. The discussion, which takes place at 7 p.m. at Madison’s First Congregational Church, 1609 University Ave., is free and open to the public.

Not every opera lends itself to this much study,” says Smith. “Dead Man Walking’s story has so many layers that this scale of outreach made enormous sense.”

For more information on the opera and its outreach efforts, visit www.madisonopera.org.


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