How do you go about adapting a work that was acclaimed and successful as a book, and then as a movie?
TERRENCE McNALLY: First of all, this is an opera, not a documentary. There's a sequence where the prisoner and Sister Helen talk about Elvis Presley. That's not in the book. I don't know if Sister Helen has any feeling for Elvis Presley. But it seemed right for me. So this is an opera suggested by, inspired by Dead Man Walking. It is not a documentary, which is a very important point. The other challenge is that there are living people. I think opera just raises the stakes, in the sense they become, not mythological, but archetypal when we see them in an opera. And the book, which is an extraordinary book, which I read before I ever saw the film, is really about two cases. Two men that Sister Helen counseled. The screenplay and our version make up a composite in a way. It also makes up a character of a fictitious prisoner. So, what you hope when you adapt or translate anyone's work to the theater, is that you keep the spirit of it. One of the last things I did in New York was the book for the musical Ragtime and I very much cared about preserving the tone of Doctorow's novel. There's no way you could put every chapter and every incident in that novel - even though it's a slender novel - it's very dense in what happens - into a three-hour show. So you just try to choose the right incidents. The same with the opera.
Music makes everything very, very long. Of the libretto I gave Jake Heggie, the composer, I would be surprised if more than 60 percent was actually set, because the music makes it longer and longer. So Jake then is choosing what he thinks is the essence of each scene. So most opera librettos if you printed it out would seem rather short, though our opera is probably going to be about two and a half hours long when it's done. So it's a question of compression and just hoping you chose. Is this the scene that advances a story, heightens the emotion? Is it the right one and not a waste of time... but always doing the right thing? And you just have to go on an instinct that you've chosen well and that you and the composer have the same or are reading off the same chart.
How did you decide to write the libretto in contemporary English? That breaks wildly with operatic tradition.
When I was asked to write an opera, the first thing I said was, "I'm not a poet." The 19th-century opera librettos that most of us are very familiar with and hear time and time again, when we go to the opera and love, those were poetic. I write very much contemporary vernacular American English. And I said to Jake, "This is how I write. Is that all right with you? If you're looking for someone to write a poetic libretto, I'm the wrong guy." I don't think people talk poetically in this situation they find themselves in. It's the music that's going to add the dimension of the poetry. But I'm very curious also to see how music is going to sit with contemporary American language. It's also going to be projected up above the proscenium on the titles, and I'm very aware from the workshop we've been doing, being sung, the language seems more important than it does if you just read it on the page.
So I'm going over every word as carefully as I can but still not changing it into a , quote, poetic drama. So in a libretto I think the job is to provide good architecture for the poet, for the composer. The words in a funny way are less important than the situation or what the character is saying, that's my belief. I'm making it sound like a rule. No. For Terrence McNally the important thing is that the words be honest and of the moment and, not get arty and, keep it moving and - I think this is a contemporary American opera. We're not writing in the style of Mozart or Verdi or Wagner. We're writing for today.
And Jake has said he's found my words very easy to set. Occasionally he'll say, "Can we change a word because I want to have a high note here and singers find this sound very difficult while they're trying to hit a B." And we work that way. During the workshop I've said to the singers, if you have problems with the word or the way something is phrased let me know. But there have been very, very few complaints in that department, and I think that's a tribute to Jake - that he sets the words so the emphasis is always right and it doesn't seem arbitrary. It seems a logical way to have set the sentence. So maybe Jake and I just are a good team. Or this subject has made us a good team.
You're an acclaimed playwright. Was it difficult to have to collaborate with a composer?
It was very simple. I gave Jake a two-act play called Dead Man Walking. It was unlike a play I would have written, in that I knew it would be sung, so I gave him situations that I would not write for a dramatic piece where all the words are spoken. A perfect example would be Sister Helen's first aria, when she's in a car on a very hot day, in a little black Datsun, making the three-hour drive to Angola penitentiary to meet Joseph de Rocher. In the theater, I would not have a character talking out loud that way. I have yet to write that kind of play. But I knew this would be sung, and I thought it would provide him with enough fuel for an aria. Then of those words, he probably set anywhere from 50 to 70 percent of them. But he couldn't set all of them. It would just make it too long. Mainly, though, I said to him, "Here are the words, if you want to change 'but' to 'maybe' or invert the order of a sentence" - I live in New York and Jake lives in San Francisco- "You don't have to call me about all that. If there's something I don't like that you've done, I will tell you." But I gave him the libretto and said go from there, with the architecture to provide him with the inspiration to write his music. We had very little collaborating in the sense of should she say this, should he do that. No. He was very pleased with what I gave him.
Was it frightening, writing your first opera?
Dead Man Walking is Jake's first opera, and Joe Mantello's. Not Michael Yeargan's or Patrick Summers' or any of the singers, so only the three of us. But I think when people are wonderfully gifted how much fun it is to be in on their first opera not their 20th. I've worked with so many young people. Someone gave me a chance when I was 23 or 24 years old, when my first play was done so it's what I think my generation does for the next generation. You say, "Come on. Talent is talent. It's ageless." But I really like to know what's happening, and I listened to a lot of Jake's music, his vocal music, before we did this, so I had no doubt that he was going to be able to write an opera. And I guess he'd seen enough of my plays to know that maybe I could write a libretto. But people, because I've written Master Class and Lisbon Traviata, seem to think I'm some sort of opera expert. I'm not. I'm just an opera fan who has lots of opinions, which are based on nothing but my own taste. I am not an authority on the human voice. I can't read music. I just started taking piano lessons a year ago and I'm really struggling with my little Bach. I can play "La Pensiere" from Nabuco. That's pretty exciting. Sometimes I can play it. Sometimes I forget it. But this is an adventure - and it's so great at 60 to be asked to write your first opera. I turned 60 this year - so it's very exciting.
As an opera fan, you must have been thrilled when you were asked to write this libretto.
My love of opera makes me very excited about doing a project like this. It also makes me very humble. It's very difficult, I think, to write a good opera libretto. I think all of the great operas have very strong librettos. And I think some operas have faltered because the storytelling isn't very clear to an audience, where the characters are hard to care about no matter how beautiful the music is. I do think and I've always believed that opera is a form of theater, some would say the highest form. That's a pointless argument, but it's theater. You've got to keep the attention of those 1,800 people, whatever the size of the theater is. You've got to keep them in their seats, not twitching. Caring about what's going to happen next. Same thing when you're writing a play. You've got to tell a story that keeps the people around the campfire interested in what you're telling them. It's sort of like back in the Boy Scouts when the Scout leader would tell us stories and sometimes we'd get very restless but other times we'd want to know what's going to happen.