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Composer Jake Heggie on the long life of 'Dead Man Walking'

Opera Parallele's production of
Opera Parallele's production of "Dead Man Walking" is at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on March 7-8.
Steve DiBartolomeo
Opera Parallele's production of
Opera Parallele's production of "Dead Man Walking" is at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on March 7-8.
Steve DiBartolomeo

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Writing an opera is no small feat, and it's even more challenging when the true story that you're adapting has already been turned into an Academy Award-winning film. But that didn't seem to rattle first-time composer Jake Heggie.

Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, "Dead Man Walking" tells the story of the nun who counseled Louisiana death row convict Joseph DeRocher. As his execution neared, the morality of the death penalty began to divide the community.

The 1995 film garnered four Academy Award nominations and a best actress Oscar for Susan Sarandon, who played Sister Prejean.

The collaboration between composer Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally premiered to critical acclaim in San Francisco in 2000. Since then, it's been performed all over the world, but its LA premiere — with a new orchestration — is at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica this weekend.

Heggie joined us at The Frame to speak with host John Horn about his unlikely beginnings as an opera composer, developing "Dead Man Walking" with playwright/librettist Terrence McNally, and the timeless nature of the story itself.

Interview Highlights:

Was this opera originally a commission? What are its origins?

That is an opera all in itself [laughs]. It was the mid-'90s and I was actually on staff at the San Francisco Opera as the PR and Marketing writer. I had injured my hand a few years before and was on hiatus from being a pianist and performer, so I had started writing art songs for some of the great singers there.

And the [company's] general director at the time, Lotfi Mansouri, noticed that this person on his PR staff was writing songs for all these singers, and he talked to me one day about writing an opera for the company. He said, "I really think you're a theater composer, and I want to send you to New York to meet with Terrence McNally."

And your answer is, "Yes! When do I leave?"

[laughs] At first I was sitting there with my mouth open and thinking, Who are you talking to? You must be mistaken! But he was very serious, so I went to New York, and Terrence and I got along great. It took us about a year to find it, but one day, just out of the blue, Terrence had this idea: "Dead Man Walking." He said that he was just walking down the street and it hit him.

Every hair on my neck stood up and I immediately recognized that it was a brilliant idea. I knew there was great music there, and it felt contemporary and timeless at the same time. It was really thrilling.

I want to ask about a couple of scenes in particular. One is at the end of the opera, and it's a conversation that two guards have that's basically a theological debate about redemption and forgiveness.

That's a moment that often goes by unnoticed, so I'm glad you brought that up. It happens at the same time as our convicted inmate, Joseph, is having a conversation with his mother on the night he's going to die. It's a very emotional exchange between mother and son — he's trying to finally tell her that he actually did this [crime] and how sorry he is to have ruined her life. And she does not want to hear that in that moment. So there's a heated exchange between those two, and meanwhile the guards are standing off to the side, having this discussion. 

We wanted to make sure that the audience realizes that this process affects everybody. It affects everybody at every step along the way, and these guards are trying to justify what they're about to do and be involved with, while this mother and son are struggling with the last night that they'll see each other. That was a very important moment, I felt, because it brought it back to a level that hadn't been discussed earlier in the opera.

Your opera begins with the rape and murder of the two victims; it's not a traditional way for any opera to start. How important was it for you to start with the crime itself? And that stage direction, Danger, menace, but much beauty, too, is that also reflected in the music that you're putting together for this opera?

I hope so [laughs]. That's all from Terrence McNally's libretto and his structure. He thought it was very important for us to see what Joe does, and start from a place of outrage. We know that we shouldn't be killing innocent people who are wrongly convicted in prison, but what do we do with someone who is truly guilty of something heinous?

What's the right thing to do? Do we repeat their behavior, or do we have other alternatives? And so we start where this isn't a mystery; we see him do it, and it's horrible, and it's brutal, and we want to see him get [what he deserves]. We're all outraged by his actions.

What is it like to visit this opera 15 years after its premiere? Do you think it's any less or more topical than it was at that point?

I think it will be topical as long as there are people on the planet, which is the amazing thing about this story. People have always struggled with crime and punishment — are we for vengeance, or are we for forgiveness and redemption?

Seeing it 15 years later is really inspiring, knowing that my first opera still has this power. It's been all over the world now — this is its 42nd production internationally — and no matter where it's done, it seems to have great power, because overall it tells a big, human drama.

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