“Dead Man Walking” Brings Opera Into the Present

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.

Info is here for the Madison Opera production of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking.

Our Bizarre Handling of “Debts to Society”

Fair warning: Madison Opera has asked me to come write about one of their new shows again, so that experience will be informing the next couple of posts here on MA101.

If you’ve been reading for at least a year, you may remember last April’s Don Giovanni live-blog. Since the current show is Dead Man Walking, a contemporary opera based on the real-life story of Sister Helen Prejean’s work with prisoners sentenced to death at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, coverage will be a little less light-hearted this time around (although in an ironic twist, Dead Man Walking would be a perfectly appropriate alt-title for Don Giovanni, too).

So here are some heavy thoughts in anticipation of further heavy thoughts about crime, punishment, America’s criminal justice system, and all that.


Justice statueThe idea of retributive justice for crimes, especially violent crimes, is about as old as human civilization. So is crime, which suggests that retributive justice isn’t a great deterrent.

Seriously. I’m all for experimental social science, up to a point, but we’ve been trying to prevent anti-social behaviors like murder, theft, etc. by demanding equal retribution (or as close to it as the law can approximate) for at minimum 4000 years now.

The data does not show this system as working very well.

Retributive justice hasn’t actually come that far since the Code of Hammurabi. Probably the biggest evolution is that these days we try to legally codify victims out of the equation, and treat penalties other than monetary compensation for provable expenses as part of a “debt to society” rather than an act of personal vengeance carried out by officers of the law. (Not that you won’t hear impassioned cries for vengeance in most prosecutors’ closing arguments.)

That has the conscience-soothing effect of making punishments more impersonal — it’s not your legal opponent or the jailer or the executioner punishing you; it’s society! — but it also suggests that society has a stake in the punishment.

And if that’s the case, shouldn’t we also get a say?


Here is the reality of a convicted criminal’s “debt to society”: it is something that you, a random member of society, will never, ever be paid.

In fact, you’re paying for it. Locking people up is expensive. The average cost of incarcerating a federal prisoner in America for one year was just under $29,000 in 2011; it’s probably gone up slightly since then.

So if, to use the common phrase, a convicted felon is released after “paying his debt to society” with 25 years behind bars, society (meaning you and your fellow taxpayers) has actually ponied up three-quarters of a million dollars, give or take, as punishment for his crime.

Which begs the question: how many of you really feel like you’re getting your money’s worth on that deal?


What do we really get when we lock a prisoner up?

There are three basic arguments: security (potential threats need to be kept away from members of society), deterrence (demonstrating penalties will scare other potential offenders into following the law), and pure retribution (people who have made other people suffer should, as a moral imperative, be made to suffer).


Of the three, security is the most compelling. You don’t want a demonstrably violent offender running around the streets with access to weaponry; you don’t want a proven thief out there unsupervised. In the short term, some people genuinely do need to be separated from the rest of society, at least until the causes underlying their initial crime against society have been analyzed and corrected. In some cases that’s quite easy; in others it’s not, and would require a substantial social service infrastructure working on behalf of convicted criminals.

But if you can get to that point — if you can remove any motivation to commit crimes – there’s no longer a security-based need for incarceration. At that point any further imprisonment is wasted expense, at least from a security standpoint.

As far as creating a secure society goes, money spent on eliminating root causes of crime is a better investment than money spent on long-term incarceration.


So then we have deterrence, or the idea that people are less likely to commit crimes when they know they will be imprisoned or harmed if they get caught.

It’s a fairly easy notion to dismiss; the evidence against it is all around us. We’ve been mandating death or imprisonment for violent criminals, as I said, for literally as long as recorded history, and violent criminals are with us still.

The very best anyone can do is argue that retributive penalties reduce serious crime through deterrence, and if that’s your bag you can make a nice career out of compiling case studies and statistics for or against varying degrees of harshness.

But any argument along those lines willfully ignores the larger picture, which is that overall the method does not work. It just doesn’t. The same basic crimes are still plaguing human societies 4000 years since Hammurabi’s time. Punishing criminals, in and of itself, is demonstrably not a sufficient solution, and anyone who wants to actually eliminate crime has to look beyond simple deterrence.


Which leaves us with the third and most distasteful argument for hurting or imprisoning people in the name of justice: that they deserve it in a pure and moral sense; that someone who has harmed society is inherently in need of punishment regardless of its practical effect.

Human history gives us deep cause to be wary of any group consensus that decides some people inherently deserve punishment. Pick your horror story: honor killings, stonings, sodomy laws, the Holocaust; whatever.

Any argument based on the idea that there are some behaviors or characteristics which automatically mandate a punishment regardless of circumstance relegates some subset of humanity to second-class citizen status. I’d like to think most of us are uncomfortable with that idea.


So where does that leave us?

With an inadequate notion of how society should be repaid by its offenders, mostly.

The blunt reality is this: beyond the short-term need for public safety, incarceration provides little benefit to society as a whole. (Execution, the theme of Dead Man Walking, provides even less, and additionally burdens the society that performs it with an inherent barbarism and hypocrisy, but that’s a subject for another day.)

If we really want to think about crimes as being committed “against society,” rather than against individuals, then we also need to think about how society can be repaid in ways that benefit everyone — including the criminals, who are, after all, members of society themselves.

Right now, we’re not doing that. The only people being repaid are the increasingly privatized owners and operators of our prison system, and you should really be asking yourselves what they did to deserve a cut of the money every time someone gets convicted of a crime.

Because right now, it’s not just the convicts who are paying that elusive “debt to society” — and it’s not society that’s getting paid.


A Case Against the “Hallelujah Chorus” at Easter Services

Retrato_de_HandelAll right, ministers and church music directors everywhere.

Let me start out by saying, I feel your pain. I get it. I understand the trend, I really do.

Attendance is down, costs are up, and you get two days a year to try and impress the casual churchgoers enough that they come back for boring ol’ non-Easter, non-Christmas services.

That means breaking out the big guns for C&E. I get it!

But trust me on this one: the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah is not your friend.

Sure, it’s a crowd-pleaser. Sure, everyone knows it. And no one can deny that it’s dramatic.

Trouble is, it’s also hard to sing. Not by the standards of professional choruses, maybe, but it’s a big piece with multiple parts going in multiple directions at once. Novices are going to get confused and wander all over the place, trying desperately to find the familiar melody they know from TV commercials regardless of where their voice is actually supposed to be.

A talented organist using his instrument to its full capabilities can play most of those parts at once, giving everyone at least some guidance, but let’s be honest here — how many churches these days really have both an organist and an organ that can rise to the challenge?

Even if your congregants can find the right part, the singing is fairly challenging for an amateur with a cold start. These aren’t the hardest parts in all of choral music, but they do require a good sense of pitch and a strong set of pipes to get where you need to be and sound good while you’re there. (I, for example, can easily hit even the lowest notes of the bass part, but only in a savage growl more suited to Rammstein than Handel.)

And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, the “Hallelujah Chorus” isn’t even about Easter. (Seriously, it’s not. Look it up. Some Day of Judgement shit going on there.)

So let it go. Drop the Handel singalong from the Easter program — please.

There’s plenty of good, hearty, brass-quintet-friendly Easter stuff in the hymnal. Flip through it and find some.

The urge to impress on Easter is understandable, but trust me, untrained voices floating all over the place in search of their “And he shall reigns” is anything but impressive.

The TV Tweeters

twitter-tvSo let’s say you’re a relatively active Twitter-user, and you have interesting things to say.

Most of your content is witty (and, naturally, succinct), with real thoughts on real issues rather than endless hashtag soups. You are, in short, a real person with a Twitter account, rather than a Twitter account run by a person.

Subtle difference, but key, that one.

Why — why, I ask, in God’s name — would you then dramatically alter your usage of Twitter for one or two hours a week, turning it into a constantly-spewing font of minute-by-minute updates about one TV show in particular?

It’s one thing from Twitter feeds that are dedicated to TV coverage, or to a specific fandom, or whatever. The people who follow those presumably want a nonstop conversation about their beloved stories (in the “Nana’s watching her stories” sense of the word, natch).

But if you’re spending 90% of your time on Twitter cultivating an audience that likes mostly real-person sorts of discussions, don’t use the remaining 10% of your Twitter-time to inflict a niche discussion filled with actor’s handles, obscure hashtags, and gushy TV crap. It just confuses your poor readers, who were under the impression (carefully cultivated by you) that you were a normal human being with basic social functions.

Also it makes their feeds a hassle to read for that hour. Seriously, the massive wall of Tweets from you? Not helpful.

Put it on another account, so that people can ignore that account. Otherwise you’re going to have to be that much funnier and awesome the rest of the time to keep us all putting up with your weekly fandom splooge-fests.


We need a word for that last little bit of sleep, after you’ve woken up and said “fuck it” and gone back to sleep.

I like that part.

Language Learning and the Words That Escape You

There’s a whole genre of “How to Learn a Language in X Days” webpages out there, and they’re surprisingly entertaining.

Not useful, mind you, but entertaining. Something about the juxtaposition of phrases like “it’s easy!” and “you can too!” with advice like “practice with a tutor for at least four hours a day” and “travel to a country where this is the majority language” just tickles me.

Like…yeah, absolutely. Anyone can learn a new language, if they don’t have to work, and can travel at leisure. I could do a lot of things if I had that kind of time and money.

So like most people, I ignore the scammy and/or over-enthusiastic webpages out there, and just bumble along with some language software and recorded lessons, which does well enough for an unpaid hobby.

And I’ve noticed something over time: no matter what the language is, or how I’m learning it, there are always a handful of words that just will not stick, no matter what I do.

I’m trying to pin down the rhyme and reason. I am deeply curious to know what combination of sounds, parts of speech, and god knows what other factors it is that makes a few specific things constantly impossible to memorize.

Or maybe it’s just psychological: my most recent bugbear has been the Dari word for “friend.” I can remember everything else I’ve learned since I started, just about, but that one is always a gaping hole in my memory whenever I reach for it. Says something about my subconscious priorities, doesn’t it?

University of Phoenix Will Teach You “Relevant Skills,” Like Backflips or Something

Paid Facebook ads of the centralized, show-up-in-your-stream variety are rapidly going the way of Groupon: a sign that a product is failing, simply by virtue of being included.

I mean, seriously, when was the last time you saw a “Sponsored” post for anything you actually wanted? When was the last time you clicked on one (except accidentally)?

So maybe it’s fitting that the University of Phoenix, a scammy for-profit school that can’t tank fast enough, is verging on the absurdist with their latest round of Facebook ads:



Say what now? Who looks at a girl doing gymnastics and thinks “relevant skills”? That is like as far as you get from relevant for the 99.9999lots% of us that are not planning a career in professional gymnastics. Backflips are not a relevant skill. Unless you are a gymnast, or a ninja.

Maybe if you asked whoever came up with the ad, he or she would tell you that it’s about coaching or athletic education jobs or something like that. In which case maybe the coach should be the one dramatically silhouetted against a heavenly bath of golden radiance, just saying?

“Come to Phoenix University. We can’t teach you to design an ad that makes any goddamn sense, but maybe you’ll learn to do a backflip. And then go bankrupt.”


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