Composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally, creators of the opera “Dead Man Walking,” seem to have accomplished their mission to share an intense human drama.
Based on Sister Helen Prejean’s famed memoir about working with inmates on death row, the work, which premiered at San Francisco Opera in 2000, has been given many new visions, with bold productions across the U.S., Germany, Austria, Ireland, Sweden, South Africa, Australia and Canada, says Heggie.
He adds, “I can't even begin to count the number of mezzos and baritones who have taken on the leading roles, but two of the very best are coming to San Francisco for Opera Parallèle's brilliant reinvention of the piece: mezzo Jennifer Rivera and baritone Michael Mayes.”
Onstage this weekend at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Opera Parallèle’s innovative production – the first in The City since its premiere – uses digital projections and a reduced orchestration by composer and company artistic director Nicole Paiement.
In the past 15 years, the opera has circled the world with more than 40 productions, receiving acclaim for its music and drama, as well as support from opponents of the death penalty. The story is well-known from both Prejean's book and the 1995 film version starring Susan Sarandon as Prejean and Sean Penn as the condemned man.
Heggie says audience response has been strong even in countries where there is no death penalty, pointing to a comment from the head of a European opera company who said, “We do not see this as a 'death penalty' opera. We see this as a fantastic human drama that tells a story we all understand.”
McNally was determined not to write a whodunnit or a courtroom drama, but, he says, to tell “an active story that begins with a brutal murder and ends with a state-sanctioned murder.”
Heggie, perhaps the Bay Area’s most famed composer next to John Adams, adds, “Our job was to take people on a journey – not to preach, not to judge – but to tell them the story and draw them into the drama. People can then reflect on their own and see what resonates. If the opera stays with people after they leave the theater, then we've done our job well.”
IF YOU GO
Dead Man Walking
Presented by Opera Parallèle
Where: Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, 701 Howard St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 20-21,2 p.m. Feb. 22
Tickets: $35 to $135
Contact: (415) 978-2787, www.operaparallele.org