Dead Man Walking
Music by Jake Heggie
Libretto by Terrence McNally
Based on the novel by Sister Helen Prejean
This opera was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera
Estimated run time of 2 hours and 43 minutes including one 20 minute intermission. Sung in English with English subtitles. Please note: Dead Man Walking will contain brief nudity, graphic violence and explicit language.
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A Journey of Faith
One of the most frequently performed contemporary operas in recent years, Dead Man Walking is the story of a profound spiritual journey taken by a nun and a convicted killer about to face the ultimate sentence. Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, the opera delves into the conflict between the act of murder, society’s demand for retribution and redemption, and forgiveness. Dead Man Walking is an unforgettable musical and theatrical tour de force.
Steven Osgood, Conductor | Kristine McIntyre, Director
About Dead Man Walking
Cast and Staff
Kate Aldrich (Soprano) – Sister Helen Prejean *
Kate Aldrich (Sister Helen Prejean) has performed with The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires, Los Angeles Opera, L’Opéra de Montréal, and National Theatre in Prague among many others. The SF Gate describes Ms. Aldrich as “…a singer with both the lustrous lower range and forceful high notes… She moves easily and arrestingly on stage, and infuses even the most transitory moments with a sense of dramatic purpose.”
David Adam Moore (Baritone) – Joseph de Rocher *
David Adam Moore (Joseph de Rocher) is a highly sought-after leading baritone by major opera houses and orchestras worldwide, including The Metropolitan Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Salzburg Festival, and Carnegie Hall. “What ultimately distinguished Moore’s performance was his consistent delivery of beauty within the bluster, including some exquisitely floated tones above the staff… This was one of the most shattering evenings I have ever spent in a theater.” (Opera News)
Maria Zifchak (Mezzo-Soprano) – Mrs. Patrick de Rocher *
Maria Zifchak (Mrs. Patrick de Rocher) is a highly accomplished artist. Of her recent performance in Dead Man Walking, Daily Camera claimed, “Mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak, as De Rocher’s mother, moves the audience to open weeping on several occasions.” She regularly performs with The Metropolitan Opera, and has also performed with Opera Theater of St. Louis, Central City Opera, Arizona Opera, Dallas Opera, Cincinnati Opera and Atlanta Opera.
Karen Slack (Soprano) – Sister Rose
Hailed by critics for possessing a lustrous voice of extraordinary beauty and artistry of great dramatic depth American soprano Karen Slack (Sister Rose) has performed with major conductors in opera houses and concert halls around the world, including Washington National Opera, San Francisco Opera, Arizona Opera, and Des Moines Metro Opera. You might recognize her as the Operatic Diva from Tyler Perry’s movie “For Colored Girls.” She previously performed with Lyric Opera of Kansas City in the 2007 production of Aida.
Daniel Belcher (Baritone) – Owen Hart
Artistic and Production Staff
Steven Osgood – Conductor
Kristine McIntyre – Director
* Lyric Opera Debut
In rural Louisiana a boy and girl sit beside a lake on a date. They listen to music and kiss. The De Rocher brothers, who are hiding close by, emerge. Anthony grabs the boy while Joseph begins to rape the girl. Anthony continues to struggle with the boy before taking out a gun and shooting him in the head. The girl screams at the sound of the gunshot. In a panic, Joseph stabs her until she goes silent.
At Hope House, Sister Helen Prejean is teaching a group of children a hymn. As the children leave, she tells her Sisters that she accepted a request from an inmate to be his spiritual adviser. The Sisters warn her of the dangers, but she remains firm that this is her duty. As she drives to the state prison she muses over her decision.
When Sister Helen arrives at the prison she is met by Father Grenville. He warns her that De Rocher, the prisoner with whom she will be meeting, is unreachable. She tells the priest that it is her duty to help the man. Father Grenville introduces her to the Warden, who also warns her about De Rocher.
Upon meeting De Rocher, Sister Helen finds him to be easygoing and friendly. De Rocher asks Sister Helen to speak at the pardon board on his behalf. Sister Helen agrees.
At the parole board hearing De Rocher’s mother and brothers plead for his release. One of the victim’s parents, hearing De Rocher’s family’s pleas, lashes out in anger. Afterward, the victim’s families confront De Rocher’s family and Sister Helen. At that moment, word comes from the pardon board that De Rocher will not be pardoned – he will die for his crime, barring intercession from the governor. When Sister Helen tells De Rocher, he becomes angry and accuses Sister Helen of abandoning him. Sister Helen says she will not abandon him, but encourages him to admit to his crime and ask forgiveness. De Rocher, however, refuses.
In the waiting room, Sister Helen searches for money in her purse for the vending machine. She begins to hear the voices of her students, her Sisters and others, telling her to stop helping De Rocher. As she is listening to the voices, the warden tells her that the governor will not commute De Rocher’s death sentence. Upon hearing this, Sister Helen faints.
A guard enters De Rocher’s cell to tell him that his execution date has been set. As the guard leaves, Joseph muses on his fate. Back at Hope House, Sister Helen wakes up from a nightmare. Sister Rose begs her to stop working with De Rocher, saying it can’t be good for her health. But Sister Helen says she cannot, as it is her duty.
On the evening of De Rocher’s execution, Sister Helen and De Rocher are talking in his cell, discussing their mutual love for Elvis. Before leaving, Sister Helen urges De Rocher to confess and ask forgiveness, but he refuses. Mrs. De Rocher and her two other sons enter. De Rocher attempts to apologize to his mother. Mrs. De Rocher will not accept, choosing to believe that her son is innocent. As De Rocher is led away, Mrs. De Rocher breaks down and Sister Helen comforts her.
Outside the execution chamber, Sister Helen meets with the victim’s parents. They ask if she is bringing them an apology from De Rocher. When Sister Helen says she does not have one, they again lash out in anger. The girl’s father takes Sister Helen aside and says he is not sure that he wants De Rocher to die and that the stress has damaged his marriage. Sister Helen consoles him and they part ways.
With De Rocher’s impending execution, he and Sister Helen talk one last time. Sister Helen once more urges him to confess. He finally breaks down and confesses. Sister Helen forgives him and says that he must look at her during the execution and she will be his source of comfort. The warden comes to escort De Rocher to the execution chamber.
In the execution chamber, the warden asks if De Rocher has any last words. Joseph asks for forgiveness from the parents of the murdered teenagers. The warden then gives the nod for the execution to proceed. As De Rocher dies, he tells Sister Helen that he loves her.
You Had Me at "Dead Man Walking"
Many American opera companies still find American operas to be a “hard sell.” When one examines statistics on the most-performed operas in North America, operas by American composers are far down the list. Some people are even surprised that there is such a thing as American opera. As one of the characters in Corigliano and Hoffman’s The Ghosts of Versailles ironically explains, “This isn’t opera. Wagner is opera.”
In fact, opera in America has a long history going back at least to the beginning of the last century, though prior to 1950 few works achieved even a toehold in the standard repertoire. Except for Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, none of these works are performed frequently today. The 1950’s constituted the first “golden age” of American opera, including still-popular works such as Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, Samuel Barber’s Vanessa, and Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul and Amahl and the Night Visitors. However, for the remainder of the century, few operas were composed to equal the stature of these works.
On the other hand, it appears that the twenty-first century may have ushered in a new golden age of American opera. While it is too early to predict which operas have staying power, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (libretto by Terrence McNally) seems well on its way to establishing itself as the century’s most popular contemporary opera. Whereas most operas struggle to get a second production once the excitement of a world premiere has subsided, Dead Man Walking has had at least forty productions and is still going strong.
As opera composers have done throughout history, Heggie and McNally took advantage of the popularity of their source material, fueled by the film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. However, in preparing the libretto McNally returned to the book by Sister Helen Prejean for his own adaption.
Dead Man Walking was commissioned by the San Francisco Opera, which has been a leader in the introduction of new American works. While the company initially requested a comic opera, Heggie and McNally balked at the idea. Sometime later, McNally approached the composer with a list of possible subjects for their new work. First on the list was Dead Man Walking, and Heggie told him to skip the rest of the list. The playwright insisted on continuing, but instead of listening to him Heggie was already listening to the voice in his head suggesting how the story could be set to music.
For those who are not familiar with the story, Dead Man Walking tells the story (based on a true account) of a nun who becomes spiritual advisor for a death-row criminal convicted of participating in the rape of a teenage girl and the murder of her and her boyfriend (In both the film and opera, the convict is a composite of two such people whom she counseled.) As their relationship progresses she learns to see him not only as a murderer but as a human being who made a terrible mistake. As she tries to have his sentence commuted to life in prison, she also works to lead him to acknowledgement of his guilt and to make true repentance before he is executed.
The key to the opera’s power was perhaps best expressed by Susan Graham, the first singer to perform the role of Sister Helen: “Their take on it was extremely human. They weren’t interested in telling a political story; they were telling the real human drama and exploring the relationships that developed because of these unspeakable acts and how that develops into something that transcends all of them.” The composer himself adds, “The goal in writing this 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.” Whereas the real-life Sister Helen Prejean is a strong advocate for the abolition of the death penalty, the opera is far less didactic. No one in Dead Man Walking makes a speech against capital punishment – the writers let the story tell itself.
– Written by Stu Lewis
Detailed Plot Outline
The opera takes place in the 1980s in Louisiana. While each of the acts is divided into several scenes, the story moves seamlessly from one scene to another without pauses for set changes.
PRELUDE: The opera begins with an instrumental prelude, a slow fugal melody, which eventually becomes louder and more violent. This melody will recur at various times in the opera.
PROLOGUE: A clearing in the woods by a lake.
Rock-style music (composed by Heggie) is heard on the radio as a teen-age couple emerge from the lake and return to their car. Two strangers come out of the woods and rape the young woman and then murder them both.
ACT I: Scene 1: Hope House
Sister Helen is seen working with children in a day-care program for low-income families. As the scene opens, she is teaching them a hymn “He Will Gather Us Around,” a motif which, like the prelude, will be heard later in the opera. She is obviously preoccupied with other thoughts, causing her to miss a verse, as her accompanist, Sister Rose, points out. She explains the reason for her anxiety – the condemned prisoner with whom she has been corresponding has asked for an in-person meeting. As the hymn and the melody from the prelude are heard in the background, she explains that just like the victims, the murderer is also a child of God.
Scene 2: The drive to Angola Prison
As she drives to the prison, Sister Helen muses on the reasons she chose to become a nun. Her reverie is interrupted by a policeman who has stopped her for speeding. In the one comic scene in the opera, when he realizes that she is a nun he lets her off, and her reverie continues.
Scene 3: Outside the prison
Father Grenville, the prison chaplain, greets Sister Helen.
Scene 4: Father Grenville’s Office
Following an orchestral interlude with violent music, Father Grenville discourages Sister Helen from counseling Joseph, the convict, in particular because Joseph won’t admit his guilt. She is introduced to the warden, to whom she expresses her opposition to capital punishment.
Scene 5: Walk through Death Row
Loud music in the orchestra echoes the percussive sound of the opening and closing of the gates (one of at least three places where non-musical sounds become part of the score). As the warden escorts Sister Helen through death row on the way to the visiting room, the convicts become a chorus harassing them. The warden admits his own discomfort with capital punishment.
Scene 6: The visitors’ room
Sister Helen sings the hymn and prays as she waits for Joseph’s entrance. In their first conversation, underscored by the music of the prelude, Joseph insists that his brother, who received a life sentence, was the actual killer. He asks Sister Helen to help him with the pardon board.
Scene 7: The pardon board
Both Joseph’s family and the victims’ parents are in attendance. In one of the musical highlights of the opera, as the orchestra plays the most lyrical music in the entire opera, Joseph’s mother gives a heartfelt speech begging for her son’s life. At one point Mr. Hart, the girl’s father, interrupts her angrily.
Scene 8: The parking lot outside of the prison
As everyone awaits the decision of the pardon board, Sister Helen approaches the parents of the victims, but in an elaborate ensemble, the parents express their anger at her for her support of the man who killed their children. In a single spoken sentence a paralegal emerges to inform the assembled crowd that the pardon board has refused to recommend clemency.
Scene 9: The Visiting Room
Sister Helen tells Joseph that she will help with his appeal to the governor. She also provides spiritual counseling, telling Joseph that he is not a bad person though he did a terrible thing. She tells him that if he admits his part in the killings and repents, he can still receive God’s forgiveness.
Scene 10: The Waiting Room
Having had nothing to eat all day, Sister Helen asks a guard for change of a dollar to buy something from the vending machine, but he does not have the coins she needs. Reeling from fatigue and hunger, she begins to dream (which is acted out on stage) piecing together excerpts from the entire first act – teaching the children, her telling Joseph “The truth will set you free,” the motor cop, Joseph’s mother’s plea. When the parents of the dead children appear, the children themselves join them silently. Her reverie is interrupted by the entrance of the warden, who tells her that the governor has turned down Joseph’s final clemency appeal. As he leaves, the dream resumes, ending in a crescendo of the various voices. The warden returns to offer her change to buy a soda. She puts the coin into the vending machine, and the sound of the bottle falling is in effect part of the musical texture of the scene, but before she can take a sip she faints, as the curtain falls.
Scene 1: Joseph’s Cell
Joseph is doing pushups, counting them out loud. The warden interrupts him to inform him that the date of his execution has been set as August 4. In a monologue, Joseph vents his anger on everyone whom he blames for his fate, including Sister Helen, whom he believes to be counseling him for her own ego. He resumes the pushups angrily.
Scene 2: Helen’s Bedroom
Sister Helen is having a nightmare in which the vision of the murdered children reappears. Awakening suddenly, she recounts her dream to Sister Rose. The two nuns speak of the nature of forgiveness.
Scene 3: August 4: Joseph’s Holding Cell in the Death House
Joseph and Sister Helen finally make a connection based on their common admiration for Elvis Presley. However, Joseph still maintains that his brother was wholly responsible for the murders, despite Sister Helen’s efforts to get him to confess so he can receive God’s forgiveness.
Scene 4: The Visiting Room
Joseph’s family has come for a final visit. They speak of ordinary things. Joseph’s mother asks Sister Helen to take a family photo. The flash of the camera is extended, as if to show the audience that they look like a normal family. Visiting time having finished, the guards come to take Joseph away. His mother smiles at him deliberately, recalling his boyhood. Sister Helen engages Joseph’s mother in a duet, telling her that God loves her son. Left alone, she prays, asking “Who will help me?”
Scene 5: Outside the Death House
Sister Helen greets the parents of the murdered children, who express their hostility at her for appearing to side with the murderer instead of with them. As three of them leave, however, Owen stays behind, admitting that he is now confused more than angry and that the strain of the events following the death of his child has caused him to separate from his wife. Sister Helen offers to visit him.
Scene 6: The Holding Cell
The guards prepare Joseph for execution.
Scene 7: The Holding Cell
In the libretto, this scene is labeled “The Confession.” Sister Helen enters for their final meeting. Joseph begins by maintaining his innocence, but when Sister Helen tells him that she has visited the site of the crime and asks Joseph to describe what happened that night, he finally breaks down and admits his guilt. This entire dialogue is underscored by pulsating music in the orchestra, which stops when the confession is finished. Sister Helen tells Joseph that he should look at her when he is strapped down so she will be the face of Christ for him. The warden enters to lead him to the death chamber.
Scene 8: The Execution
As the guards escort Joseph to his execution, the various characters join in the Lord’s Prayer, following which the somber music of the prelude is heard again. Sister Helen and Joseph say “I love you” to each other. Asked for his last words, Joseph tells the parents that he hopes that his death will bring them relief.
The execution itself is a brilliant demonstration of the adage that sometimes “less is more.” Heggie totally silences the orchestra, so the only sound we hear is the beeping of the vital-signs monitor. During the scene, the dead children silently join their parents. Finally, the beeping flatlines, indicating that Joseph has died. Again unaccompanied by the orchestra, Sister Helen begins singing “He will gather us around.”
– Written by Stu Lewis
Jake Heggie was born in Florida in 1961 but spent most of his formative years in Ohio and California. His first musical inspiration was his father, an amateur jazz musician, who committed suicide when Jake was ten years old. Like virtually all successful composers Jake demonstrated significant musical talent early in life, becoming a proficient pianist. Following the death of his father, he began composing at the age of 11. In his late teens he took advantage of an opportunity to study with Ernest Bacon, one of America’s greatest art-song composers, and while Mr. Heggie has composed in several musical genres, the art song was his favorite mode of expression until he took up opera. (For those not familiar with the term, the art song differs from the popular or theater song in that the “accompaniment” is as important as the vocal line and the music is composed to follow the text rather than conforming to traditional meter.) An avid reader of poetry, he takes an almost mystical approach to setting texts: “I let [the poem] sit there for as long as it needs to. And then suddenly I go back to it and you know, there’s a musical response.”
While Mr. Heggie says his musical style has been influenced by Stephen Sondheim, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter as much as by Claude Debussy, Benjamin Britten, and Aaron Copland, he has preferred to write for the classically trained voice.
Mr. Heggie’s compositional career got a boost through a series of serendipitous events. He had planned to make a career as a pianist, but when a temporally disabling condition limited the use of his hands, he turned to musical administration, taking various jobs in marketing and public relations for various performing companies. During a period where he was working for the San Francisco Opera, he befriended the great American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade during rehearsals for Dangerous Liaisons, and on impulse he showed her his original arrangements of American folk songs, and she was so impressed that she became a champion of his works.
Dead Man Walking was his first venture into opera. The world premiere took place at the San Francisco Opera, with Susan Graham playing Sister Helen and von Stade singing the part of the condemned man’s mother. A New York production soon followed, with Kansas City’s Joyce DiDonato in the lead. These three singers have continued to be the ones most closely associated with his works. Ms. DiDonato included four songs by Heggie (settings of texts by Helen Prejean) on her CD “The Deepest Desire.” Despite a few dissenting reviews, the reaction was overwhelmingly positive and the opera has gone on to become probably the most popular original opera of the current century.
The success of this opera enabled him to free himself from the need to hold a “day job.” Since that time he has composed numerous works, including six additional operas. His second opera, The End of the Affair, had its premiere in 2004 and was produced a few years later at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. Other operas include To Hell and Back, Three Decembers (also with McNally), Moby Dick, and Great Scott (featuring DiDonato and von Stade), again with McNally. It’s a Wonderful Life, based on the popular film, as of this writing is scheduled to be produced in 2016. Moby Dick, a spectacular multi-media production, may someday come to be recognized as his greatest masterpiece. It is available on DVD.
In his personal life, Mr. Heggie struggled early with his sexual orientation: “I didn’t want to be gay, and I resisted it with everything that I had.” He married Johana Harris, one of his teachers, who was several decades older than he was, and despite periods of separation, they remained married until her death in 1995. Finally coming to terms with his identity, he established a long-term relationship with singer/actor Curt Branom, whom he eventually married when it became possible to do so. He was able to experience parenthood as a co-parent for Curt’s son by a prior relationship, whom he helped raise from the age of three (he is now 20).
– Written by Stu Lewis
Terrence McNally, who wrote the libretto for Dead Man Walking, is one of America’s most successful and prolific playwrights, with over forty dramas to his credit, including nine musicals and four operas. He was born November 3 1938 in St. Petersburg, FL and spent most of his childhood in Corpus Christie, TX. After graduating high school, he moved to New York to attend Columbia University, where he established himself as a playwright, by writing the school’s annual variety show.
His first play, And Things That Go Bump in the Night, was poorly received, but he persevered, writing several stage plays and musicals before writing his first major success, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune in 1982, which was subsequently adapted for the screen, with Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer in the lead roles.
Mr. McNally has also contributed the book for nine musicals, and if you don’t associate him with that genre, it could be due to the fact that the “book” (script) writer rarely gets equal billing with the composer and lyricist. For example, we speak of Stephen Schwartz’s Wicked, not Schwartz and Holzman’s Wicked. Among his musical theater credits are The Rink, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Ragtime, The Full Monty, A Man of No Importance, and Catch Me If You Can. Though he has had no formal training in music, he describes himself as an opera fan, and two of his best-known stage plays, The Lisbon Traviata and Master Class, are about opera and opera singers. He has written the librettos for four operas, three with Heggie. He has been awarded four Tony awards.
In his personal life, he married Broadway producer (and formal civil rights attorney) Thomas Kirdahy in 2010, though the relationship goes back several years.
As for the process of working on the libretto for Dead Man Walking, he explained that his role was to present the composer with a play, which Heggie was free to condense, since “music makes everything very long.” He chose to write in contemporary English rather than using the poetic style employed by more traditional librettists, partly because he does not consider himself a poet, but more importantly because he does not “think people talk poetically in this situation they find themselves in.” The composer has added, “The hard thing about this score is that it never stays in one tempo for very long. It’s like English, or like speech, where you are constantly changing.” As for his approach to libretto writing, Mr. McNally has stated that “I’ve always believed that opera is a form of theater, some would say the highest form.”
– Written by Stu Lewis
Sister Helen Prejean
Helen Prejean was born in Baton Rouge, LA, on April 21, 1939. In 1957 she joined the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille, and after completing her college education she served as director of religious education at St. Francis Cabrini Parish in New Orleans. Subsequently she started working with the poor in New Orleans.
Though she never sought fame, her life took a major turn when she received a letter from a convicted murderer, Patrick Sonnier, who eventually asked her to be his spiritual advisor during his remaining time, a task which included her accompanying him to the death chamber. Subsequently, she performed a similar service for Robert Lee Willie. These two experiences gave her a close-up look at the way the death penalty was carried out, and she became an avid opponent of the death penalty, leading to the publication of her book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States (1993), which soon gained the number one spot on the New York Times best-seller list. Her subsequent experiences with death-row inmates, this time with convicts she believed to be innocent, led to a second book in 2004, The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions.
The success of Dead Man Walking (not only the book, but the 1996 film), in which she was portrayed by Susan Sarandon, who won an Oscar for her performance) thrust her into the spotlight, giving her numerous opportunities to spread the word about her experiences and to become a major spokesperson for those seeking to abolish the death penalty in the U.S. From 1993, she served as chairperson of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, and she has also been active in Amnesty International. She has been honored by numerous organizations around the world.
Based on her experience in working with Sister Helen in the development of the opera, Susan Graham has commented, “Sister Helen herself is an incredible force of nature. She is a light force and was there for me on a very personal level, a real shoulder for me to lean on. The subject matter, and being involved with Sister Helen, made me even more spiritually aware.”
– Written by Stu Lewis
From Book to Film to Opera
While the film Dead Man Walking and the subsequent opera of the same name were inspired by the book Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States, these subsequent versions were significantly different from the original.
As is evident from the title, the book is to some extent a treatise on the inequities of the death penalty in the U.S., made vivid by the author’s descriptions of her counseling relationships with two death-row inmates and her personal witnessing of their executions. The writers of the film script were more intent telling a story and allowing the message to be conveyed indirectly. The most significant change was the creation of a character Matthew Poncelet, who was a composite of the two inmates described in the book. The film also makes no comment on the death penalty itself, and by choosing a convict who was clearly guilty (he confesses shortly before his death, following the importation of Sister Helen) the film focuses on the characters. One aspect of the book that is touched on only tangentially in the film is Sister Helen’s involvement in counseling families of murder victims as well as those convicted of the murders.
Though the opera may have been inspired to some extent by the film, Mr. McNally explains that he took a fresh look at the book itself as his source. This accounts for the name change of the convict from Matthew Poncelet to Joseph de Rocher.
– Written by Stu Lewis
God and Opera
It is notable that despite his self-description as a secular humanist, Jake Heggie’s first two operas are concerned with religious themes. Heggie was raised as a Catholic, but he began to question his faith at age ten when his father’s suicide turned his world upside down. Nevertheless, the opera takes religion very seriously. From a rationalist point of view, it should not really matter if Joseph repents moments before his death, but the opera appears to accept without question Sister Helen’s view that acknowledging his guilt and asking forgiveness is critical. His second opera, The End of the Affair, also deals with religion as a woman fights with her conscience in her desire to be unfaithful to her husband, trying unsuccessfully to convince herself that there is no God so any vows she makes would not be valid.
Such religious concerns are rare in opera, which is essentially a secular art form. Composers such as Mozart, a Catholic who composed some of the most beautiful liturgical music ever, wrote operas that are totally secular. The Magic Flute could be cited as an exception, but the religion in that opera is based on Masonry, not Christianity. In Don Giovanni, the title character is dragged to Hell by a ghost, with no involvement of either God or Satan.
One reason that religious themes are so rare in opera is that religious leaders for many years discouraged the secularization of religious material. In England, in fact, plays with Biblical themes were forbidden for many years.
When we think of religious operas, in fact, we naturally think of those based on Biblical stories. While Verdi’s Nabucco is ostensibly about the Babylonian exile, its subtext (apparently missed by the censors) was a call for Italian nationalism. About a century later, Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah, based on the story of the same name from the Apocrypha, was actually written as a protest against the oppression of individualism during the McCarthy era. Though Richard Strauss’s Salome was based on the story of John the Baptist, it is a study of psychological depravity, intended to shock rather than inspire. Saint-Saëns’ Samson and Delilah, with its famous bacchanal, actually makes paganism look more attractive than the faith to which Samson adheres.
Religion and spirituality are expressed more directly in operas not based on the Bible or on specifically religious themes. Charles Gounod’s Faust is the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for renewed youth. When his mistress kills their newborn baby and is sentenced to death, her soul is saved when she offers a heartfelt prayer to the angels who surround her and she is answered by a Heavenly choir proclaiming that she is saved and “Christ is risen.” A similar conclusion occurs in Boito’s Mefistofele, another opera based on the Faust legend. Both of these operas are based on Goethe’s telling of the story, in which salvation is achieved through good works, not faith.
Giocomo Puccini was concerned with the contrast between organized religion and true faith. He preferred heroines like Mimì, who often prayed but rarely attended church. He has great fun in Gianni Schicchi in which the title character cheats a monastery out of an inheritance. In both Tosca and Suor Angelica the Catholic Church is depicted as corrupt, on one hand collaborating with the oppressive government and on the other using a convent as a virtual prison for unwed mothers, yet both heroines achieve salvation; Angelica, despite her suicide, is rewarded for her faith by being reunited with her son in Heaven, and Tosca dies declaring her faith in God’s justice. His The Girl of the Golden West is concerned with repentance and forgiveness. In one memorable scene Minnie, a tavern keeper, teaches the gold miners a Bible lesson, a departure from the original play, in which she teaches classical literature.
Perhaps the most popular American opera of all time is Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, an invented story of a widow and a crippled boy who play host to the three Magi. When Amahl offers his crutch as a gift for the newborn child, he is miraculously cured of his limp.
The most memorable twentieth-century opera on a religious theme is Francis Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, which depicts a group of nuns who choose martyrdom rather than abandoning their faith during the reign of terror following the French Revolution. In their deaths – chillingly described in the music accompanied by the repeated falling of the blade of the guillotine – the audience cannot help but be moved by their faith and their spiritual triumph over their oppressors.
As for Mr. Heggie’s operas, the composer shies away from labeling them as religious. “I think they have very human themes…This has nothing to do with religion, per se….Redemption coming from taking responsibility for one’s actions is moral, ethical, and human. No religion need be attached.” Yet these are the themes with which religion has grappled throughout the centuries.
– Written by Stu Lewis
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