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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
Michael Yeargan    -Transcript-
Set Designer
Biography
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"The challenge of doing something like Dead Man Walking is that there is no precedent."
The Players

Sam Fleming | Susan Graham | Jake Heggie | Lotfi Mansouri | Terrence McNally | John Packard | Patrick Summers | Frederica von Stade | Michael Yeargan
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Michael Yeargan
What challenges did you face, creating a set for a new opera?

MICHAEL YEARGAN: The challenge of doing something like Dead Man Walking or any new opera is that, especially for this one, there is no precedent. When you do Boheme, there must be 50,000 or 60,000 other productions of it that you've seen and that everyone else has seen, and everyone has a preconceived notion of what's going to be on the stage when the curtain goes up. With Dead Man Walking, people have seen the film, people have read the book, but they've never seen a stage production of it. It's a wonderful challenge to be able to say that we're going to create the first visual image of these words and this music that anyone has ever seen. So when the curtain goes up, especially right now, I have vague, foggy images of things that were my own responses to the words and the music that I've actually just heard, so that will then lead us into the next discussions with the director.

What's the process for visually imagining the scenes of an opera?

I had read the script, which Terrence had written. And Terrence and I had done work together a long time ago. And then we've just recently done Central Park together up at Glimmerglass Opera. And he gave me the final pages while I was up there. And just reading it almost as a play, the first thing that you notice is this kind of incredible tension. You feel like you're holding onto the book and your knuckles are getting white. It's almost like heading toward a car wreck. Because you know what is coming, or what might not come, but the suspense of it is unbelievable. And then hearing Jake play through it for me. It just knocked my socks off because he starts with very, very lush music combined with the rock and roll of the radio at the murder scene, which is the prologue to the whole piece. Then you're thrown immediately into this tight spotlight, that should just be the brightest light you've ever seen, on Sister Helen's face and into this little spiritual with the children around her. It's building these images of incredible horror, at the beginning, in the light of two headlights from a car, into this very beautiful simple image of this nun singing with these children around her.

And it's like that all the way through. I find that the scenes he's written with the mother are just heartbreaking and, again, just keep adding to this tension that builds up as it goes along. I see it very, very simple and very stark and the first image is blue, moonlight, lush, Spanish moss. These headlights cutting through the evening mist and these figures in and out of the light and then this horrible murder and then cutting to this white light on her face. But probably surrounded by black. I think the most difficult thing with an opera as intimate as this one is the fact that you do have a large stage to deal with. And trying to decide just what the nothing that surrounds it is, is the most difficult part of the evening. We know there are big moments that happen - like the first time she walks into the prison and she's surrounded by all these bars and almost cages with men in them and screaming and taunting her is a big moment - when it would open up. I think there are 30 or 40 chorus members who'll be singing those taunts. And then it comes right back down to the waiting room and separated by a piece of glass. But it's small images juxtaposed to these bigger moments. Certainly the last image does have to seem like the longest walk that anyone has ever taken, probably, to the back of the theater. But it is somehow juxtaposing all of these images, of the waiting room of people waiting to see this execution happen, him walking along maybe just a white road that goes to the back or a pathway, maybe surrounded by cell doors. One thing leads to the other.

How important is collaboration?

I think that any production, especially a new one, is a total collaboration. As a designer, or even as a human being, our minds are filled with a visual vocabulary of things that we've seen, of things that we've experienced, old movies we've seen. So that when you read these words on a printed page, these mathematical little black figures that generate an idea, a spark or a visual image has to come into your mind. And your visual image may be different from the one that I get but I can't read a script or listen to an opera or hear music even without a visual image. I could sit down right now and take the libretto, and the music, and probably scribble out some rough images of what I see in my brain. But you don't want to do that until you've talked to the director to find out what's going on in his brain because they may be totally opposite to what I've got in mine. Usually it doesn't work that way. Usually you're pretty much on the same page, but the wonderful part about working in the theater is that when you get to the opening night, you can hardly remember whose idea was whose. Did you have the idea about the blue in the Spanish moss? No, no, no. That was you.

What was it like to see the first rehearsal of a brand-new production?

I think the first hour goes a little bit slow, the first time everyone's in the space and we're getting used to it. We're discovering what it can do what it can't do. One of the first things we noticed is that the two big units that form the set, for most of the show they really needed to be able to go offstage further, but we're limited by the architecture of the theater. So we're also looking at ways of pulling the picture in to block and frame it. And we've also decided that by doing that, it really helps to make it more of a prologue than just the first scene because it's so different in its nature. Then slowly just sneaking into the next scene. And there are things we're going to rethink: the position of the trees that are in the first scene. And so I'll come in at seven in the morning with the model and start cutting it apart upstairs and just looking at the different configurations of that, now that we've seen this theater. There's nothing like being in the theater.


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