Lyric Opera stages intimate, immersive production of nun’s riveting memoir about convicts on death row.
Since “Dead Man Walking” premiered at the San Francisco Opera in 2000, there have been more than 40 stage productions worldwide. There are two commercial recordings, one featuring Kansas City native Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen. For an opera that is only 16 years old, this is remarkable. “Dead Man Walking” is one of the most successful American operas in recent memory.
Based on a nonfiction memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, recounting her work as a spiritual adviser to two convicted murderers on Death Row, it’s also an extraordinarily provocative and controversial work. “Dead Man Walking” is loaded with moral questions and the horrors of suffering and death. The audience is asked to weigh the violent deaths of victims against the institutional murder of the perpetrator, to try to reconcile the Christian imperative to “love thy neighbor” with the human instinct for revenge.
In March, that story comes to Kansas City, under the baton of Steven Osgood. The newly appointed artistic director of Chautauqua Opera will make his Lyric Opera debut.
It’s also his “Dead Man Walking” debut, though he’s known the piece since its premiere in 2000.
“I was working for San Francisco Opera at the time of the world premiere of “Dead Man Walking” and was thrilled to be at the first performance,” Osgood recalls. “It was such an incredibly riveting evening of theater, and the response to the piece was overwhelming. I knew then that I wanted to conduct it. Before I found opera, I was pursuing a career in theater. ‘Dead Man Walking’ is precisely the kind of contemporary opera that made me realize that the theater I really needed to be pursuing was the opera theater. The emotional potential of opera is unmistakable in this work.”
Osgood has made a name for himself conducting the work of living composers, which some musicians find nerve-wracking. To mold and put your stamp on the music of someone who could frown and tell you you’re doing it wrong can be a stressful experience. But not for Osgood.
“The jarring difference is now the other way around for me,” Osgood says. “I have become so used to (and comfortable with) asking a composer and librettist what they were after when they wrote a particular word, phrase, passage, scene, not having the creator in the room for rehearsal feels odd.”
Stage director Kristine McIntyre will direct. McIntyre is no stranger to Kansas City audiences; she has been at the helm of multiple productions for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, including last season’s “Don Giovanni,” the world premiere of Kirke Mechem’s “John Brown” in 2008, and another Heggie vehicle, “The End of the Affair,” in 2007.
She has also directed “Dead Man Walking” several times in several venues, which gives her a deep understanding of the material and its potential impact on audiences.
“Because it premiered at the San Francisco Opera, many people think of “Dead Man Walking” as a big piece,” McIntyre says. “But at its heart, it’s quite an intimate story. Many scenes involve just a few people, and it’s really a piece about human connection through conversation.”
McIntyre directed the opera in Des Moines in 2014, a small venue with only 467 seats. For that venue, she used the intimacy of the house to highlight the intimacy of the story.
“The house there has a playing circle beyond the orchestra pit, and the audience is on three sides, a very immersive feeling,” she says. “I staged the initial conversations between Joe and Sister Helen on the bridges over the pit so that the orchestra pit itself was the barrier between them, rather than glass or a screen of the sort you might see in a prison visiting room.”
McIntyre wants to replicate the intimacy of the audience with the story she created in Des Moines for Kansas City audiences.
“We’re actually building out over the orchestra pit to create spaces for the Joe and Helen scenes,” McIntyre says. “Those conversations will feel really present for the audience — you won’t be able to look away — and it’s a completely new way of using the theater.”
At the same time McIntyre leverages the Muriel Kauffman Theatre to create intimacy, she will use its size and breadth to create both the actual prison and the abstract prison.
“Because Angola [Prison] is a real place, it’s easy to get swept up in naturalism,” McIntyre says. “The house in Kansas City is big enough to allow us to have many layers of prison — gates and chain link stretching into the distance. But Jake Heggie keeps reminding me that “Dead Man Walking” is about people and relationships. Sister Helen is in a prison of the mind as much as a real place, and our production will reflect both those realities.”
“This production in Kansas City will be a unique blending of the ‘big house’ and ‘small house’ ideas,” McIntyre continues. “‘Dead Man Walking’ will be deeply atmospheric and extremely intimate — a drama that will reach out and grab you.” o
The Lyric Opera presents “Dead Man Walking” at 7:30 p.m. March 4, 8 and 10 and at 2 p.m. March 12 at the Kauffman Center. For tickets and more information, 816.471.7344 or www.kcopera.org.
Photos courtesy of Des Moines Opera