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...

No comments:

Post a Comment