Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dead Man Walking: Walking With Joseph De Rocher and Sister Helen

One of the great things about opera is that the same work can be produced in many places at the same time. There happens to be a production of Dead Man Walking being produced by Opera Parallèle just a couple weeks before our production in Dayton. One of the events leading up to the production in San Francisco featured the author of the book that the movie and opera was based on, Sister Helen Prejean. It would be another great way to get into the piece and learn about the people involved in it. I left for the evening thinking I'd be going to temple, with a room of a hundred or so die-hard new opera people. I was eager to hear Frederica von Stade, Kristen Clayton, Nicolle Folland, and Cathy Cook sing with Jake Heggie at the piano, and get the chance to hear some of Sister Helen's story in-person. I figured it would be a low-key opera preview event with a crowd of mostly familiar people. The reality was somewhat different. I arrived at the location, in San Francisco's Pacific Heights neighborhood - surrounded by multi-million dollar mansions - to a security detail that was nearly as intense as what I go through when I check into a flight at SFO. Suddenly I was hit with the reality that I was about to participate in an event that is truly politically charged, where there's the possibility of things going very wrong if certain people gained access.  

I got my clearance sticker, proceeded through the metal detectors – twice, and found my way to the main sanctuary where there were about a thousand people already seated. Not a low-key event at all. Good! People are interested. People are involved... The program begins, Flicka sings with Jake, we are off to a beautiful start. We hear from a former prison warden, an attorney, and Sister Helen about how the death penalty affects us all, costs the system and tax dollars, and is ultimately not an effective punishment. I heard stories of inmates, families of inmates and victims, and the personal viewpoints of these three people who have had so much experience with "the system". It was a startling dose of reality. The average citizen doesn’t get to see what happens to convicts throughout the process, or watch the eventual execution of someone on Death Row. The lives involved in that journey are totally amorphous to us: we generally assume that bad people just go away, and should probably die. Why, though? What does it accomplish? The stories I heard that night had me considering things I never thought about before....

Now I'm involved in telling the story of a disadvantaged man whose life went down a bad path, a crime fueled by drugs that he was dosed with, and whose fate was sealed by the law ending his life. Looking at the gray areas isn't easy: it takes objectivity and effort to listen. It's so easy to say: "bad people should die", but when we say that, what are we actually saying? Stories are always bigger than the surface layer. I never asked myself these questions before. Walking with Joseph is teaching me to look deeper. There's a story behind every person, no matter what they've "done". I’m grateful to Sister Helen for helping me look a little deeper, and to discover things we are taught to ignore.  

It was wonderful to be introduced to her by Jake Heggie after the event was over, and to spend a little time talking about the work and the role. How often do we, as opera singers, get to talk to the source of a story? Almost never! What made that even more special to me was that this author is really working and fighting for change – not just telling a story for its own sake. I’m honored to be a part of that work in my small way, bringing the story and life of Joseph to light. Hopefully I can help people consider things they haven’t thought about before. What’s beautiful about the opera is that it doesn’t tell you what to think – but it definitely makes you think.

More soon...

Monday, February 2, 2015

Dead Man Walking: The Journey Begins

A few weeks ago I was asked to perform the role of Joseph De Rocher, the convict on Death Row, in Dayton Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s opera Dead Man Walking. It would be a fast-paced study period, having only a month to get the role learned and memorized before going into staging rehearsals. Memories of the movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn immediately came to mind, but I never saw the opera. I’ve always been a fan of Jake Heggie’s work, and was interested in taking on a role like this, but was there enough time for me to prepare?  As soon as I got the call to consider the role, I asked my team about their willingness and availability to help me prepare. I was reassured with extra support from my teacher, the composer, the stage director, and members of the company - since coming in at the eleventh hour is scary even for a modest role in a standard repertoire opera. Through the magic of YouTube, I got to listen to the entire opera a few times, and sang along with several of Joseph’s lines to see how it fit vocally. That part was fine and I agreed to be in the production – now to LEARN it…

As soon as the score arrived (Priority Mail!) I sat down and highlighted Joseph’s lines. That process seemed to go on forever… What had I gotten myself in to, with just one month to learn this huge part? If there was going to be any hope of having it learned in time I needed a battle plan: divide the role into six parts, and take five days to learn (and mostly memorize) each one. Work in sequence, and build on to what you learned the previous five days. There would be a little wiggle room, but I’d do my best to stay on target. It seemed to work, and I’m ahead of schedule.

I had a few deep conversations with our stage director, Gary Briggle, on the opera, the characters/relationships in it, and specifics of the role. We talked about the look and feel of Joseph, and the story of his past that lead him the death penalty. I was worried about a character like Joseph taking a toll on me, personally, and on the people closest to me. Studying characters isn’t new to me, and I know how involved I get in them, but I’ve never played a man on Death Row for rape and murder… Putting it all away can sometimes be difficult: between the music constantly playing in my mind, thoughts of Joseph’s world, his relationships, crimes, remorse, fear, lies… It’s hard to turn all that off. A journey to get into the space and mind of a man whose life went down such a dark path is not something I want to wander into blindly. Luckily, there are truly incredible people around to keep me grounded, and remind me that I’m also here, now.

One of the striking parts about the process has been changing the way I look for the role. Something as simple as modifying workouts and growing out a beard has been huge in building this character for performance. I’m used to being Zachary Gordin outside of rehearsals until tech week – when costumes and makeup are put on me, and the full transformation is more instant. It’s different when the process goes on for several weeks. I’m meeting Joseph through a kind of immersion, seeing the world in a slightly different way, and considering things and people in a way I don’t usually. It’s comforting to know that I’ll be able to shed him once the production is over, but it’s important to acknowledge that seeing the world through different eyes – even the eyes of a Death Row inmate - isn’t a bad thing.