San Francisco Opera's world premiere production of "Dead Man Walking" is a gripping emotional drama that is probably the most quintessentially American opera to appear in many years. It explores the cultural and political realities of capital punishment from the perspective of the families of the victims and the perpetrators of the crime. It covers the issues of drugs, violence, and dysfunctional families, to growing up poor in the projects. Librettist Terrence McNally drives straight to the heart of the emotions, from the fear of death of the convict, to the vengeance of the families of the victims, to the love and dedication of Sister Helen. Composer Jake Heggie weaves a seamless tapestry of American music from rock 'n roll to gospel, jazz, and Elvis into the traditional opera idiom.

The curtain rises on the two kids at the lake. Their car headlights are on, a rock 'n roll song is blaring on the radio and they're making out on a blanket. The two figures appear in the shadows, pounce on the kids, and as the girl screams they are murdered. A single, plaintive saxophone trails off and a gospel singer appears out of the shadows. Sister Helen is joined by the kids she's working with and Sister Rose, who tells her she has a letter from "her convict."

One of the light moments occurs when she is driving to Angola State Prison as she gets pulled over for speeding. The officer comments that he's never ticketed a nun before, but he did get an IRS agent once, and he got audited that year. He decides to let her go, asking her to say a prayer for his mother who has cancer. At the prison she's informed that Joseph de Rocher is one of the most hardened convicts, and refuses to admit his guilt.

The prison is layered mainly from top to bottom, in variations of gray concrete and black bars. Its a very depressing set. When Sister Helen and de Rocher meet, it's on two wooden chairs at the front of the stage. He does everything he can to offend her. She's afraid and vulnerable, but has an inner strength that prevails. The guards keep throwing verbal barbs, and when they part Joseph says "you're no nun. You're the angel of death."

The action heats up at the Pardon Board Hearing. Sister Helen has written a statement for Joseph's mother, a poor, uneducated, underprivileged woman, to read. Frederica von Stade, as the mother, is small, broken, confused, and intimidated. She failed her son and is tormented by it, but she loves him anyway. The victims' parents are furious. Robert Orth raves as he tells how his daughter was stabbed 37 times in the throat and her senior pin was buried so deep in the wounds that they never found it. Sister Helen tries to comfort them while the mother pleads for her son, and the chorus sings a refrain, "Haven't We Suffered Enough."

Joseph is furious when the decision comes that the death sentence will stand. The Pardon Board took seventeen minutes to decide if a man would live or die. Sister Helen sorts through all of her emotions on life, death, murder, and God as the characters come together behind on many levels, top to bottom, and she finally collapses as she is told that the Governor has denied Joseph de Rocher's pardon.

The execution date is set. Joseph's scared. He remembers the girl, and they appear half seen through a scrim at the top. Sister Helen starts awake out of her sleep. She has seen the murdered children in a dream. Sister Rose tells her not to go back. "We have others to attend, he's only one man." "But he's all alone waiting to die." Helen struggles with her emotions, and finally goes back. They talk of Elvis. She had seen him in his "Zarathustra" period and they sing snippets of his songs, concluding with "Jail House Rock" to bring them back to reality.

Joseph's mother returns for her last visit. She reminisces about when he's a little boy. It's a mother's unconditional love. This is no Flicka part, and Frederica von Stade demonstrates why she's one of the greatest singing actresses of our time, through her versatility. She's totally out of character in this role, and she's tremendous. Protesters gather in a candlelight vigil outside the prison gates. Inside the girl's father tells Helen that nothing will bring back his little girl again. He wants to forgive, but can't understand anything as he goes to watch the execution.

The guards cut away the sleeves of Joseph's shirt and mock him in their little rituals of death. Sister Helen tells him to look at her when they inject him, so the last thing he sees will be the face of love. He confesses to her, and to the families as we are swept to the climax.

"Dead Man Walking" is set in the 1980's at a time when the public was clamoring for executions to a point of removing a majority of the California Supreme Court over the issue. It's curious, and rather surprising to me to see this issue being rethought very publicly today, with many prominent and unlikely sources calling for, at least, a moratorium on capital punishment. I have never seen the movie or read the book, so this was my first exposure to Sister Helen Prejean's story. This opera has some very thought provoking dialogue, and the music is dramatic, contemporary, and very melodic with snippets of Americana from the pop culture of the 1970's and '80's. Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" is an excellent new opera at The San Francisco Opera.

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