Joyce DiDonato Plays Sister Helen Prejean in HGO's Dead Man Walking

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who plays Sister Helen Prejean in Houston Grand Opera's upcoming star-studded production of Dead Man Walking, had her sights set on becoming a high school choir director.

But when she needed some extra credit at Wichita State University in Kansas, she stepped into a college production (and the world of opera) and loved it.

Success was not immediate, however. "It took me many years," she said in an interview with Art Attack. She had to learn to sing in a different way and even when she was a student at the HGO studio for up-and-coming opera talent, "I was the back-up," she said. But she'd enjoyed acting in plays in high school and found that she liked the freedom a stage gave her.

"I worked very hard for years to have the voice match the musical expression," she said. And she was successful, becoming known not only for her interpretations of Handel, Mozart and Rossini but because some of the time she was a "pants" performer as well, playing the young male roles originally played by the castrati.

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Now a world traveler, she has won major performance awards around the globe and was named Gramophone magazine's 2010 artist of the year. She has a new CD coming out on January 25, Diva/Divo that shows off the male and female roles she's done in the same stories.

She first did Dead Man Walking, the operatic version of the story about Sister Prejean who comes to know and counsel a prisoner on death row, eight years ago with the New York City Opera. "It shattered me then. It is everything that theater should be. It is the most intimate of operas; two people take a spiritual journey together. It has beautiful music."

With music by Jake Heggie and a libretto by Terrence McNally based on Sister Prejean's own novel, the opera is sung in English with English subtitles. Unlike the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, there is no doubt that prisoner Joseph De Rocher is guilty - the opera starts with him committing the murder. "Jake and Terrence chose very consciously to start the opera with the crime. They wanted it to be absolutely clear that he's guilty," she said.

The role of Sister Prejean is a challenging one, she said. The music is lyrical, but she is on stage for almost all of the two hour, 45 minute (with intermission) production. "I have a 30-second costume change and four minutes at the start of the second act," she said.

It was a role, she said, she knew she would want to return to again. The Houston performance also includes mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, an opera legend, making her farewell to the opera stage as De Rocher's mother.

In turns beautiful and ugly ("when it needs to be"), filled with humanity and redemption, Dead Man Walking grips audiences from beginning to end. The execution is not an off-stage effect - "quite a radical idea" as DiDonato put it - but it stays true to Sister Prejean's belief that if you're going to support in the death penalty, then you ought to know exactly what it entails.

Dead Man Walking runs at the Wortham Theater Center's Brown Theater, Texas Avenue at Smith Street, from January 22 through February 6. Ticket information is available at www.houstongrandopera.org/deadmanwalking or call 713-228-6737.

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