As I mentioned yesterday, Madison Opera invited me to come see their preview showing of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and write a bit about it.
I’ve done just that, but I’d be doing both the generous public relations team at Madison Opera and you guys a disservice if I didn’t first say: go see it, if you’re in Madison this weekend. The opera is showing Friday, April 25 at 8 PM and Sunday, April 27 at 2:30 PM, and it will be harder for us to be friends if you don’t take advantage while it’s here.
This was the first contemporary opera I’ve seen that does what opera’s supposed to do: it tells you a story, and tells it so goddamn hard you cry.
Contemporary opera often has a whiff of desperation about it: “Look how modern and experimental we are being! To hell with tradition! Tradition is for old people, who will soon die and stop donating (although we’re totally going to bug them in the programs about legacy gifts). Mozart? Puccini? Never heard of those guys. Listen to our atonal growling!”
Heggie’s Dead Man Walking doesn’t do different for the sake of different. The music is unmistakably modern, but draws more on American roots than 20th century minimalism or post-modernism for its sound. There are bits of gospel, zydeco, and even Elvis in the orchestration.
Beginners can get into it. That’s very important. And I dare say someone who gets into this one could also get into the standard repertoire, because (and here we come to my thesis at last), Dead Man Walking is, at its heart, about opera as much as it is about anything else.
Opera is Some Heavy Shit
I’m as guilty as anyone of giggling over the ridiculously implausible scenarios of classic tragic opera. (The last time I did this for Madison Opera, in fact, the result was a very tongue-in-cheek play by play of Don Giovanni, which is generally seen as a “fun” evening of opera despite being about rape, murder, and more murder.)
That’s a culture and a tradition Jake Heggie doesn’t seem shy to take on with Dead Man Walking.
The plot is right at home in the same canon as Don Giovanni, Il Trovatore, Tosca, and other rape/murder/revenge/execution stories. There are corrupt churchmen, unrepentant rapists, bereaved parents seeking death in repayment for their slaughtered children — all the hallmarks of a fun night at the opera, in other words.
Which is pretty fucked up, when you think about it. And Dead Man Walking does not shy away from the fucked-up, beginning with a graphic on-stage depiction of the rape and double-murder that starts it all before segueing into a quiet hymn sung solo by the character of Sister Helen Prejean.
Dead Man Walking is about capital punishment. But it can’t remove itself from the context of the opera house, and that makes it about what we as audiences find entertaining, too.
Death should not be trivialized. The show makes that very, very clear, from the opening brutality to the heartrending quartet sung by the bereaved parents near the end of the first act all the way through to the Gothic-sounding chorus on the march to the Death House. It’s a condemnation both of capital punishment itself, and of people who can accept it. (“Just doing my job” sings the warden, in a deep and appropriately villainous bass.)
There are a lot of things in there to make any opera-goer think, first time novice or jaded expert alike. I filled quite a few pages with notes, on everything from the Christ symbolism (cruciform gurney, guards talking about selling the condemned Joseph’s clothes, etc.) to the troubled role of Sister Helen’s celibacy (more than one parent criticizes her for not being able to understand what having a child is like, and near the end her exchanges with Joseph become deeply sexualized: “Have you let me in, Sister Helen?”/”Oh yes, so much more than I ever imagined.”)
But really, if you’re in Madison this weekend, or if you’re ever somewhere it’s playing, you should just go see it for yourself. Seriously.