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.