Sister Helen Prejean and Dead Man Walking in Opera Form

Describing herself as "a pretty regular nun" before she became involved in death penalty cases, Sister Helen Prejean spoke about her "journey" to an audience of opera enthusiasts last night in the packed foyer of the Wortham Center. It was an electric evening both for the views expressed and the two performances of music from Houston Grand Opera's upcoming Dead Man Walking that book-ended the evening.

Prejean, of course, has lived the life and wrote the book that inspired the opera and the 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon. As she put it, though, when she first came to visit a prisoner on Death Row she never thought he would actually be killed in the electric chair two years later and that she would watch his death.

Besides Prejean, the panel of "experts"--led in discussion by HGO Music Director Patrick Summers--included composer Jake Heggie, mezzo sopranos Joyce DiDonato and Frederica von Stade and director Leonard Foglia who confessed that before directing the original performance in New York City eight years ago, he's only been to maybe two operas in his life.

Since then, Dead Man Walking has been shown all over the world (all in countries that don't have the death penalty), but this is its first time in Houston. Prejean referenced the fact that Harris County is known as what she called "the belt buckle of capital punishment" but said that even here, things are changing.

The opera itself never comes down on one side or the other of the death penalty debate, but is, as DiDonato said, designed to make audience members think about their position.

Jake Heggie who accompanied HGO studio artist Catherine Martin on both selections said he was working in the PR office at the San Francisco Grand Opera and writing songs on the side when he was given the chance to write the music for an opera. He met with Terrence McNally and the project they settled on was Dead Man Walking - although the manager who first gave Heggie his chance had said he wanted a comedy.

Heggie said the first thing Prejean asked him was about what kind of music he had planned. "You're not one of those atonal composers," he said she braced him with. "We're going to have a tune when we walk out?"

Von Stade, a friend of Heggie's, said he first approached her for the Sister Helen role, but she told him she was too old for it. Instead, she wanted to play the mother of the death row inmate. She has chosen to make this role the final one of her career.

At the end, Prejean was asked what Patrick Sonnier, the executed convicted murderer would have to say about what she's doing now with her crusade against the death penalty. She recounted how he hadn't wanted her to watch his execution. "He was trying to protect me," But she went anyhow, telling him that she thought by telling his story, "perhaps your death can be redemptive."

"He went 'OK Sister Helen. You can be there.' "

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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Margaret Downing is the editor-in-chief who oversees the Houston Press newsroom and its online publication. She frequently writes on a wide range of subjects.
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