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Susan Graham returns to ‘life-changing’ reality of ‘Dead Man Walking’ for Lyric Opera staging

The hugely popular work by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie is based on the best-selling memoir by death penalty opponent Sister Helen Prejean.

Susan Graham (as Mrs. De Rocher) and Ryan McKinny (as Joseph De Rocher) in a scene from the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “Dead Man Walking.”
Susan Graham (as Mrs. De Rocher) and Ryan McKinny (as Joseph De Rocher) in a scene from the Lyric Opera of Chicago production of “Dead Man Walking.”
Ken Howard/Lyric Opera of Chicago

San Francisco Opera general director Lotfi Mansouri plucked Jake Heggie out of near obscurity in the late 1990s and asked him to write a new work for the company, pairing the composer with famed playwright Terrence McNally as his librettist.

When the two creators sat down in 1997 to discuss a possible subject for their opera, McNally offered Heggie 10 choices, leaving his favorite unnamed. Heggie stopped at the first item on the list and unknowingly picked that preference: Sister Helen Prejean’s “Dead Man Walking.”

“It was immediately, like, ‘Zing!’ ” the composer said of Prejean’s unflinching story of serving as spiritual adviser to two death-row inmates. “That’s the one. All the hair stood on my arm and the back of my neck.”

The resulting opera was an immediate success in 2000 at the San Francisco Opera, with the company adding two performances to the original seven. It has gone on to become one of the most-performed operas of its time.

When Lyric Opera of Chicago opens its first presentation of the work on Nov. 2 as part of a new mainstage initiative to present one recent work annually, it will be the opera’s 69th production by professional and academic companies large and small.

Heggie described having a company of Lyric Opera’s world-class caliber place its imprimatur onto the work as “enormously important.”

“It brings tremendous credibility to the viability of the opera,” he said. “The fact that 20 years on, a large opera house is willing to embrace it and cast it so magnificently, speaks to the strength of the work itself, which is enormously encouraging.”

Prejean’s best-selling memoir chronicles her journey into the realm of capital punishment, starting with her service as spiritual adviser to Patrick Sonnier, who was put to death at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in 1984. In all, the New Orleans nun has accompanied six men to their executions.

Jake Heggie
Jake Heggie
Ellen Appel

“I witnessed a man electrocuted to death by the State of Louisiana,” Prejean said in a recent interview. “He was the first, and I came out of the execution chamber that night, and 90 percent of the people in Louisiana in 1984 were for the death penalty. It was unquestioned: ‘This is what we’ve got to do. Some of these people by their character, they’re evil.’ And the crime was a terrible one, the killing of two teenage kids. But I had seen what it means for the state to take and kill a person.”

One thing she realized in writing “Dead Man Walking” is that she had succumbed to fear and did not engage the victims’ families when she was serving as spiritual adviser to Sonnier.

“Boy, you see that theme worked in the opera,” Prejean said, “especially when the victims’ families are singing, ‘You don’t know what it is like.’ And I’m in the middle going, ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” because I was sorry, because I didn’t reach out to them. I didn’t do it right.”

After Heggie and McNally agreed to adapt “Dead Man Walking,” they watched the 1995 movie version with Susan Sarandon in the role of Prejean, and they were more convinced than ever that their choice was the right one.

“It felt very American but universal,” the composer said. “It felt very much of our time but timeless. It felt big enough emotionally that it would fill an opera house and it would also make sense for people to sing with those kinds of emotions and those kinds of conflicts.”

The next step was securing Prejean’s permission, and she did not need much persuasion despite having never heard of Heggie. “I wanted it in every art form we can have it,” she said, “to bring the people close [to capital punishment], because it’s like a secret ritual. There are only a few witnesses.”

Sister Helen Prejean, author of “Dead Man Walking”
Sister Helen Prejean
Provided/File

In the original San Francisco production, Prejean, who exerts a powerful presence in both private and public settings, was portrayed by famed mezzo-soprano Susan Graham in what she called a “life-changing experience.” Very few characters in opera are based on real people, so it was a big departure.

When she began rehearsals, she had only met briefly Prejean at a publicity event and was playing the role in a very serious, determined way. But during the final week of rehearsals, the author was around every day, and the singer became acquainted with her more deeply.

“I thought, ‘She gets through life with humor,’ ” Graham said. “Then I went into the dress rehearsal the next day, and it was a completely different characterization, because I got to know the real person who I was portraying. It was very eye-opening.”

Performing in this searing opera is challenging for any singer, but it was especially so for Graham, because her father became ill during rehearsals and died during the run of the production. “In a piece in which my character is all about shepherding someone gracefully to and through death,” she said, “my real-life experience made it all doubly intense and emotional and difficult.”

Ryan McKinny stars as Joseph De Rocher and Patricia Racette portrays Sister Helen in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “Dead Man Walking.”
Ryan McKinny stars as Joseph De Rocher and Patricia Racette portrays Sister Helen in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of “Dead Man Walking.”
Ken Howard/Lyric Opera of Chicago

Because of that experience, she resisted returning to the opera despite multiple offers to do so. Then, for a production at the Washington National Opera in 2017, director Francesca Zambello persuaded Graham to sing the role of the mother of Joseph De Rocher, a composite character that combines Sonnier and another inmate highlighted in Prejean’s book.

The first weeks were hard. Graham found herself crying during performances of the damaged woman, but it was “vastly different” path than what she had experienced as Prejean, and she ended up “reconciling” with the opera.

Her appearance at Lyric Opera will be just her second time in the role. Also appearing in this production will be noted soprano Patricia Racette as Prejean and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny making his company debut as De Rocher.

Although Prejean is clearly an opponent of capital punishment, Heggie and she did not want this opera to be simply a polemic. Instead, the composer wanted to plunge attendees into a human story around what can be a distant, abstract issue.

“I was thinking if we tell the story well,” he said, “and bring them into the story without telling them how to feel, then maybe it will open up a dialogue, which is what I like when I go to a show. I don’t want to be told how to feel.”

In post-performance discussions, Heggie has seen all kinds of reactions. People who were in favor of the death penalty begin to question it. Others become more convinced of its value than before.

Graham, who was raised in what she called the “conservative geography” of Midland, Texas, acknowledges that her perceptions changed after having never given capital punishment much thought. “My confrontation with the issue was living, sleeping, eating it 24 hours a day for weeks and weeks and weeks,” she said, “and starting to see that even in people that we deem to be monstrous, there is some humanity.

“Nobody is wrong in this opera,” the mezzo-soprano said. “There are many dissenting opinions and they’re all legitimate.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.