What was it like, rehearsing a brand-new opera?
JOHN PACKARD: For this first workshop, the music is not completed yet and we are working through the music with Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally and Patrick Summers and all of us are contributing our ideas. "This doesn't quite work for me" or Terrence will say, "We need a little more delineation of character. We need to add a few lines because we want the audience to understand what's going on in the story." And this doesn't happen very often, the fact that San Francisco is taking the time to really make sure that this is a collaboration and a very strong work. And I think it is. Already it's a strong work and we're not finished yet.
We haven't had the music that long. We are arriving with a decent idea of how the music's going to go but as we're working through it, we're really learning what the composer had in mind. He hears what he wants. And he tries to write it on the page and it doesn't always come out that way for us to see it, as he wants it. So Jake will play and sing the parts the way he wants them done and they actually swing a little bit more than straight classical music. And we come to a medium, an area where, this is what he wants. And that doesn't work, this works. It's very intense that way. But it's especially intense because the characters are so intense. My character with Helen, those scenes, every single scene that we do is a different flavor, a different color, a different moment, but they're very intense.
How did you approach the role of Joe de Rocher? How do you make a murderer sympathetic?
To sing this character as a real American. He's a tragic character. I use the classically trained voice that I have, but it's more of a musical theater experience. Once you learn the music, and once you have it in your body, you just go with it. And the character seems to grow from that. He's a pretty harsh character. There's a beautiful aria, which is so against his character but when put in the light of him coming on to Sister Helen, it really works. It shows that other side of him, that he can be sweet, or at least, he loves women, and he can be good to the girl for a while, but he's hitting on a nun. And that comes across with this character. It's another piece that was added to this character, brilliantly by Terrence McNally.
How can an opera tackle this emotionally charged and highly political issue?
Opera has been around for hundreds of years. And some of the most popular composers did go with topics of the day but turned them around so it wasn't obvious. The censors were ready to scratch out anything that was obvious. This is a piece that is dealing with a topic that is a hotbed of controversy. And it's not giving any answers. It is saying that, hey, this guy is human. Is killing him right or wrong? They're not going to say that, whether it's right or wrong. Sister Helen is going to have exactly her ideas of "I don't believe in capital punishment. This man should be punished for what he did and he did a very bad thing but is killing him going to bring back these people or killing him going to make the crime any less?" This is a topic this opera is going to open some eyes about. I hope it does.