The opening work in the Metropolitan Opera’s award-winning series of Live in HD productions is Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s compelling masterpiece Dead Man Walking, starring mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as death-row inmate Joseph De Rocher, soprano Latonia Moore as Sister Rose and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham as De Rocher’s mother. Direction is by Ivo van Hove and the conductor is Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Dead Man Walking is the most widely performed new opera of the last 20 years. With a libretto by the late Terrence McNally, a leading American playwright, screenwriter and winner of numerous Tony and Drama Desk Awards, it is based on the memoir of Sister Helen Prejean about her ministry to condemned murderers on death row. Subtitled The Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty that Sparked a National Debate, the book was described by The Washington Post Book World as “An immensely moving affirmation of the power of religious vocation… Stunning moral clarity.”
American composer and pianist Jake Heggie is – according to The Wall Street Journal – “Arguably the world’s most popular 21st-century opera and art song composer…”. He has written nine full-length operas and nearly 300 art songs, as well as chamber, choral, and orchestral works. A frequent collaborator with educational institutions and other performing arts organizations, he undertakes artist residencies, and offers mentorship services and master classes to performers and creators.
Sister Helen Prejean became a nun in the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph at the age of 18, and began her ministry to convicts awaiting execution in 1982, which she chronicled in the book Dead Man Walking. The opera concerns her fight for the soul of a condemned murderer, Joseph De Rocher, sentenced to death for his role – with his brother Anthony – in the brutal murder of two teenage girls. He asks for Sister Helen to visit him in prison, and she urges him, during her visits, to admit his guilt and find forgiveness.
Dead Man Walking was written in the late 1990s and given its world premiere by San Francisco Opera, at the city’s War Memorial Opera House in 2000. It was based on real-life events from the late 1970s and early 1980s, but Heggie set his opera in contemporary times, as questions about the value and morality of the death penalty remain relevant.
Multi-Grammy Award winner and 2018 Olivier Award winner for Outstanding Achievement in Opera Joyce DiDonato has been described as “perhaps the most potent female singer of her generation” by The New Yorker, and The Times refers to her voice as “nothing less than 24-carat gold”. She returns to the Met later in the season to reprise her critically acclaimed appearance as Virginia Woolf in Kevin Puts’ The Hours, appears with her hometown Kansas City Symphony Orchestra for a series of subscription concerts, performs in Istanbul, Strasbourg and Paris and also appears in recital at Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin, Wiener Musikverein and Carnegie Hall.
Following Ryan McKinny’s appearance as Joseph De Rocher for Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Chicago Tribune wrote: “An indelible performance… McKinny proves at once menacing and charismatic. An acting tour de force buttressed by a warmly inviting voice.” This season, McKinny returns to Houston Grand Opera with appearances as Amfortas in Handel’s Parsifal and Leporello in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. He closes the season with a three-city tour of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s new opera Before It All Goes Dark, commissioned by Music of Remembrance, with world premiere performances in Seattle, San Francisco and Chicago.
Latonia Moore has a wide-ranging repertoire which includes the title role in Verdi’s Aïda – for which she has received international acclaim – Serena in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, Cio Cio San in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, the title role in Puccini’s Tosca, Elisabeth in Mozart’s Don Carlo, Mimi in Puccini’s La bohème, Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen and Princess Liu in Puccini’s Turandot. She also performed in the 50th Anniversary Gala of the Metropolitan Opera.
Grammy Award-winning Susan Graham, described by the New York Times as “an artist to treasure”, originated the role of Sister Helen in the opera’s premiere in 2000 – a role which was written specifically for her. Ms Graham is a frequent performer at the Met, as well as maintaining her links with Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, with Santa Fe Opera and the Hollywood Bowl. She is known for her repertoire of French vocal music, and won her Grammy for her collection of songs by American composer, Charles Ives.
Gary Halvorson will direct the Live in HD presentation for cinemas, with Grammy Award–winning musician, MacArthur recipient, and Pulitzer Prize winner Rhiannon Giddens as host.
Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads the soloists, Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus, as well as the Young People’s Chorus of New York City (Artistic Director Francisco J Nunez) in a transmission live from the stage of the Metropolitan Opera of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking.
The transmission will also include an intermission feature filmed at Sing Sing Correctional Facility. Led by Sister Helen and DiDonato, and in association with Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections program, members of the opera’s cast and music staff, together with some of the resident men at Sing Sing, rehearsed and presented an abridged concert version of Dead Man Walking at the correctional facility.
Following the debut performance at the Met, amongst the rave reviews was this one from The Washington Post: “WILD APPLAUSE AND STANDING OVATIONS… Dead Man Walking makes its arresting Met debut … The finest and most engaged work I’ve ever seen or heard from Joyce DiDonato … Ryan McKinny sang the role of De Rocher with figurative and literal muscular force … Revelatory singing … Commandingly conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin.”
The transmission takes place on Saturday, October 21 at 12.55 pm ET. To find your nearest theatre, search this link.
Further information is available on the Metropolitan Opera website.
The Met offers the following content advisory: Dead Man Walking contains a depiction of a rape and murder, as well as other adult themes and strong language.
Information sourced from Metropolitan Opera program notes