Were you intimidated by the task of playing Sister Helen Prejean on stage?
SUSAN GRAHAM: It's always tricky when you're portraying a living person. I read the book and had some ideas and saw the film of Dead Man Walking before I ever met her. Any time you read a book before you see a film your mind builds the character. And then you see the film and then your mind has a more specific idea of the character, and then if you actually meet the real person it's often very different from anything you'd imagined. And that's how it was with Sister Helen. I imagined her to be this icon, untouchable, sanctified, just larger than life. She's a diminutive woman - she's little, but her personality is bigger than the whole outdoors, and her generosity and her spirit just lit up this place where I met her. There were lots and lots of people there, but the minute that I saw her everything else went away because her presence and her spirit are so great and so luminous.
And that has helped me a lot in defining her character. It's a combination of a great inner strength and of profound earthiness, a great sense of spirit and spunkiness and sense of humor and sarcasm and wit, but at the same time this enormous generosity of spirit and forgiveness. It's also a danger playing a living person because then you want to try and replicate the person's mannerisms or their physicality, and I'm about twice her size. I'm very tall and she's not. So physically we're very different but that doesn't matter, ultimately because the story that we want to tell is about the spirit of forgiveness and redemption and the journey that Sister Helen embarks on through this man who is on death row. And his journey that he embarks on through her.
How do you tell this very contemporary story in an opera?
I think Joe Mantello is very concerned with realism and a very natural approach. He's never directed an opera before. He's done wonderful work in the theater - heart-wrenching, very incredible, realistic portrayals of a lot of different things. But in this case, in Dead Man Walking, we're all very careful to decide exactly what story we're telling, and the story that we're telling here is not necessarily about the death penalty. It's about this journey. It's about love and redemption and forgiveness. And we want to tell it in as natural a way as possible, as accessible a way for the public, so that they can experience the same journey through our characters. In order to do that, we have to cut away a lot of operatic artifice, a lot of traditional operatic grandeur. And we have to be very pure, and we have to be very simple - even though these are bigger-than-life issues and bigger-than-life emotions, our delivery of them has to be very straightforward. And that's Joe's main goal. Even the speech, operatic speech, is usually very exaggerated, so that we can be understood. [The characters] are from Louisiana so the cast can't talk [in that operatic style], we have to relax the speech a little bit. It's not that we're using a Southern accent, but it's just very relaxed speech. We don't want anything to sound overdone or pretentious or artificial - because this is all very real.
How does the music work with the libretto, since it's written in contemporary English?
The music is written in a very naturalistic speech rhythm. There are very few moments when there is a musical number. It's very conversational. It just bubbles along with the spirit of the scene, whatever scene it is. My music is typically a little more fluid and Joe's music is typically edgier and more jagged and rougher. There's a big gospel influence because of Sister Helen's background. There's real jazzy, spiky rhythms in the prison scene. There's outpouring, Puccini-esque long arching lines illustrating the pain of the parents of the victims, and it's all very character-full music. Everyone has his or her own light motifs, actually. I love the scene with Sister Helen and Sister Rose when they're talking about forgiveness and then they talk about their mothers and how a mother's forgiveness is unquestioning, unconditional. If we can begin to approach that, then we have accomplished a lot. It's a very Puccini-esque duet between me and Sister Rose and we just sing these beautiful memories of our mother buttoning our coat before we went to school and the little ways that she showed she loved us no matter what.
What was your process for developing the Sister Helen character?
Joe Mantello's ideas are so simple and straightforward, and my idea of Sister Helen is also quite simple, strong, no B.S., straightforward, clear message. So my original idea and Joe's idea for the production worked together really well. He helped all of us to cut away any kind of extraneous operatic grandeur and just cut down to bare bone, the bare essence of the message. And the physicality of that message was what really helped me get a real synthesis of the character of Sister Helen. Also spending time with her. I met with her and spent a few hours with her the night before we opened. We opened on a Saturday. Friday night I spent some time with her. And in that short period of spending time with her, my characterization changed because I became even more and more aware of her humor and her ability to just reach out with her eyes and that's a large percentage of her talent and her message.
Some think this opera is just about the death penalty. What do you think it's about?
This art form addresses issues that are bigger than life, and loss is something that is often bigger than life. I find that, for myself, as the singer the opportunity to work it out through the music and throw my heart and throw my emotion and throw my whole being into the performance, for me is very healing. For the people in the audience, I think that seeing and hearing this message through the impact of music, which touches us on a level that is so far beyond verbal and sometimes even so far beyond consciousness, I think it speaks to something that is really deeply human in all of us. A very human conflict about the need to connect with other human beings, even ones, just on a strictly human level, as Sister Helen says, ... who are unlovable, unforgivable, have committed horrible crimes and are not remorseful. Do we as humans have it within us to forgive them, through God's love, through our own? That's our journey.
What was the most affecting moment in the opera for you as an actor?
The most emotional moment within the opera is probably the moment when we've turned to face each other for the very first time, just after his confession. At that moment, from the audience standpoint we've been facing each other all night long, quote unquote. Literally we've been facing out all night long. When he confesses, when he finally breaks down and when he tells me, "Yes, I killed them." And he says, "You must hate me now." And I say, "No, I don't hate you, and God will forgive you, God is here. God is here right now." And the music swells into this huge heart outpouring of love and God's forgiveness. And at that moment we slowly turn and face each other, as theatrically we were supposed to have been doing all night long. But from this standpoint now we are truly seeing, eye to eye, and we're both on the same page at this point. And this is the moment where if it were a different kind of love story, this would be the swelling romantic love scene. It's not that kind of a love story, but it's the same effect, it's the same impact. It's the moment where they finally look in each other's eyes and they actually see the other person there. They're not hiding any more. Then comes the time when I have to say, "When they do this thing to you, I want you to look at me. I want to be the face of love for you and I want the last thing you see in this world to be a face of love." That's probably the most emotional moment for me.