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And Then One Night - The Making of Dead Man Walking
Creative Process Stories Behind Capital Punishment Sister Helen Prejean About the Program
The Players Inside Death Row State of the Opera
Jake Heggie    -Transcript-
Composer
Biography
Transcript
Video
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UK Guardian Opera Review
US OperaWeb Feature: Dead Man Walking
SF Opera Site Bio
"The music's all about creating character and giving that singer something to connect with the audience."
The Players

Sam Fleming | Susan Graham | Jake Heggie | Lotfi Mansouri | Terrence McNally | John Packard | Patrick Summers | Frederica von Stade | Michael Yeargan
Teachers: Visit our Classroom Content area for ways to help your students explore social issues through art and music.
Jake Heggie
Jake Heggie
What was the process for composing Dead Man Walking's score?

JAKE HEGGIE: I did PR and writing and marketing for arts organizations, and that's actually what I first did for the San Francisco Opera. That's how I got to know Lotfi Mansouri and also all of these amazing singers who are now championing my work and many of whom are in Dead Man Walking. People do have a right to be curious about that because I'm unproven as an opera composer and I know that. But I feel it was very easy to write the piece, actually. Having written so many songs and vocal works, it's always been my interest and my motivation to create character in song, whether it's a two-minute song, a three-minute song or a 25-minute song cycle, to develop a character in that time, find the psychology and the inspiration for saying those words in the first place. And then take it to the next level and finding inspiration for singing it, those words. But the music's all about creating character and giving that singer something to connect with the audience. And so on a small scale, that's what songs are about. So transferring over to opera because it's always been about character and psychology. It was actually a much easier leap than I thought.

How do you go about finding the proper "music" for a character?

Terrence McNally, my librettist, is always saying when he writes a play, he needs to find the language that that character would use, not that he would use but that the character would use. And so my responsibility as the composer is to find the music that that person would sing. Not the music that I necessarily want them to sing but the music that honestly I believe they would sing. And it's all about being honest through the text and through the music and through to these characters. Now someone like Joe de Rocher, our death row inmate in Dead Man Walking, it wasn't that easy to find, but once I did find it and I found the humanity in him and the little boy that his mother talks about in the opera, it was much easier for me to find the right music for where he was. It's my belief that the greatest expression of love, humanity, spirituality, redemption, whatever you want to call it, the greatest expression in vocal terms is this long arching line, and I think all characters that I create are in search of that long arching line. And whether they get there or not is in the story. But the opposite of that is a very angular, short, choppy line. So there are different ways of expressing things but what I'd find is he's really in search of being able to sing that long arching line - but he's so confined by what he's been given and what he's grown up with and all the restraints put upon him that Sister Helen is there to help him find that. And he, in turn, helps her to find something that she didn't know she had, too.

Dead Man Walking takes on very loaded, contemporary topics. Were you worried that it might not appeal to a broad audience?

I've been asked many times, "Don't you think an opera about the death penalty is a bad idea?" And I say, "Well, yeah, I do, actually! I think that would be a really dull opera." And our goal in writing Dead Man Walking was not to make a documentary or a biography or to re-create the movie on stage. It was not about creating Sister Helen's true-life story or any of the true-life stories that we see, and it's not a soapbox for a political issue. It's not. It's about human beings on an amazing journey and people from rather ordinary circumstances thrown into an extraordinary circumstance dealing with the most incredible conflicts and the most intense pain, and how we make it through that pain. And how the hardest journey that any of us takes in our lives is forgiveness. It's the hardest thing to do. It's the hardest thing we do as people - to forgive and to find that peace and that space in our hearts. I'll tell you one thing I learned about when I was doing all the characters in this story, and that is nobody is wrong to feel what they feel. No one's feelings are wrong. Their feelings just are and it's how you deal with your feelings and other people's feelings to find the right way and the way that's best for everybody. We're not trying to preach; we're not trying to go one way or the other. We're giving perspectives from everybody.

As a first-time composer for the opera, what was it like seeing the work come to life?

The workshop in August of 1999 was a real revelation for me because I had been living with it in my head for a little over a year and a half. And to have it come off the page and fill up that space and fill up other people's heads rather than just my head, was a tremendous relief. Not only that but it made the piece come alive in a different way - and I actually had not written the finale of the opera, the last ten minutes of the opera at that point. Terrence was really interested in me pushing to get it done at that point but I didn't want to because I really wanted to hear the whole architecture of the piece and the dramatic flow before I wrote the end - because the end is so crucial to the piece. After the workshop I wrote the finale in a week. So it was very clear to me after the workshop what I needed to do and what the piece needed to say at the end. And it was a big surprise to me, actually, how I wound up ending it because the opera, there's a big orchestral and choral ensemble at the end when he's on his final walk where everyone is singing the Lord's Prayer in their own version, from different sides of the stage. Because that prayer when you think about it can mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. And if you think about, the victim's parents are there singing it with their meaning, Sister Helen's doing it her way, the prison chaplain's doing it his way, the guards are singing it another way, the inmates are singing it another way, the people on a prayer vigil are singing it another way, all with different emphases and meaning - and that's happening from all different sides of the stage.

What is it like to finally hear the music in your head sung by professionals?

The soloists, since they got their music last October, the final score based on their own learning schedule and timeline and what they have time for, have been learning their parts so that when they come in September for the first rehearsals, it'll be pretty much memorized and learned. They'll have the entire opera under their belt so that Joe Mantello can then work with them to get the motivation and the spirit of their character solidly in place according to his vision and according to what they do. They are huge collaborators in the whole process of making this come to life - so what they have to say and what they think about their character is very, very important. I worked with Susan Graham in New York for a full week and it was amazing the things we found that I didn't even know were in the score. When it comes alive in someone's voice, it's very different thing. When I worked with Frederica Von Stade a few weeks ago, she basically had it all memorized and she was telling me which lines, which musical and vocal lines, to her defined her character. She goes, "There it is, right there." And I would say to her, "You're right. I hadn't thought of it that way but, yes, you're right, absolutely." So it's interesting to see their perspective now that they come to rehearsal and they all come together with all their individual ideas about other characters and their character and how they interact - because it really is a big ensemble opera. It's all about the interaction between these people. It's all built on ensembles. When they come together for the first time and start singing through these things together, it's going to be very interesting to see how their ideas change or how one character influences another character as they go.


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