Dead Man Walking

  Sister Helen with Susan on opening night at the WNO

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Question 1 – On Character

As we go on this journey with the young nun, Sister Helen, what does she mean when she describes it as one both to her Christ and to herself? And does she ever believe Joseph De Rocher is fully innocent or fully guilty?

Question 2 – On the Journey as Opera

This is a contemporary opera about a despicable double crime. How has it been rendered as a subject for opera, and does Jake Heggie’s music help or hinder that journey?

Question 3 – On the Design

In this production, gone are the prison cells, courtroom, visiting room and other gritty details of actual place. Stripped down to squares of light and a few iconic symbols, how has the design built its own world, and does it serve the story?

Question 4 – And at the end…

Has the production deepened your understanding of the American prison system and has this affected your position on the death penalty?

6 comments on “Dead Man Walking”

  1. Joey wade

    “Question 3 – On the Design
    In this production, gone are the prison cells, courtroom, visiting room and other gritty details of actual place. Stripped down to squares of light and a few iconic symbols, how has the design built its own world, and does it serve the story?”
    yes and no.
    yes, the isolated areas of light do give a sense of separation but they do not give an emotional dismal feeling. Overall I thought the design was too minimal and airey. I would have enjoyed more chain link, fence razor wire and concrete, and prison bars on a huge opera scale juxtaposed to tiny confining spaces that would have offered more emotional oppression.

  2. Laura Lewis

    Question 1 – On Character
    As a nun, Sister Helen is called to go where Christ leads her. But as she travels on the journey, she becomes something different than she was before. She becomes braver and loves more and becomes more “Christ-like”.
    I don’t think Sister Helen ever believes he is innocent. All the way through the opera, she tries to get De Rocher to confess his guilt. She believes she should not care whether he is guilty or not. She should simply love him and believes that he can be forgiven.

    Question 2 – On the Journey as Opera
    The use of jazz, pop and contemporary styles blended together seamlessly to do justice to the story. It also helped to use Southern accents to highlight the use of jazz.

    Question 3 – On the Design
    I loved the minimalism of the set. One could feel the confinement of the prison through the squares of light. I think the story is not so much about the grittiness of the prison, but the confinement of his soul.

    Question 4 – And at the end…
    I may have a different take on the death penalty. What struck me in the opera is that the only reason, De Rocher repented was because he was facing execution. Had he been faced with life imprisonment, would Sister Helen have even written to him? Would he have sought out Sister Helen to come to him? Would she have come? Prison is more of a torture for inmates than death. I don’t believe in the death penalty as a revenge or justice for those who have lost loved ones. It does not bring back loved ones. I don’t think it really brings closure like people would want it to. But prison is rarely a place of redemption.

    My brother was in prison for several years. He was not on death row, but he suffered more in prison than a person should. Remaining in prison did not make him remorseful, it only deepened his feeling of injustice. This was his second time in prison. The first time, he was given the opportunity to go to drug/alcohol rehabilitation. Being faced with imprisonment, he chose the way that led to redemption at least for a time. He was sober for 10 years. In the case of some, it is the alternative to prison that brings redemption.

  3. Melinda

    Character question: Sr. Helen’s journey to Christ, I think, is to learn to love her neighbor as herself and to forgive her neighbor, even though he has committed a heinous crime. I think her struggle is one of many Christians–how does one love someone so difficult to love.

    She knows he is guilty and that is part of the journey. How can she accept his guilt and still love/like him. I love the scene where they start exchanging personal information and he comes to see her as someone other than a stereotypical nun (she dances to Elvis) and she sees him as a man–almost in a sexual way.

    The power of the opera is that it allowed the anguish, terror, anger come out in full force. Somehow the music conveys a deeper impression than a drama in which angry or sad voices rise up. Maybe the music, the voices are more intense, more passionate.

    I like the set of squares. Didn’t understand those sitting on the sidelines at first, but liked their being a part of and yet apart of the action. However, I don’t think it nearly conveys the horror of the prison experience. I, too was always against the death penalty, but this provides reason to be against it in a very emotional way. And yet, would he have come to accept what he had done at the last moment if he had not been executed?

  4. Duane Gelderloos

    The dress rehearsal on Wednesday was eye opening. Went back to the premiere on Saturday and the cast was in full voice and form. They brought out more aspects of the opera that I did not get the first time. Having idle cast members sit on the side of the stage, like another audience observing the opera (in character), made me reflect on how the rest of us were not only observing but had a role to play on this journey that we are all on.

    The squares metaphor was effectively realized. Some characters remained trapped in their square, some transcended – through forgiveness or death, or at least started to question the walls they had built around themselves. Only one of the victims’ parents broke down to step out of his “right or wrong, you’re with us or him, I have nothing to say to you ” square, but it only takes one at at time.

    Regarding NJ’s comment about Joe’s line “that may work for the little black kids in the projects, but not here”, I think he saw Sister Helen as a meddling do- gooder out to save the world and make herself feel good. Her work in the inner city was just her superior attitude of coming to save others. In the pre-talk at the premiere, the real Sister Helen told us she didn’t know any better when she moved in from the suburbs and made many mistakes. She related what a friend told her when she started her work in the projects, “If you are here to fix or rescue me – goodbye, I don’t need you. If you are here to listen, learn and allow your views to grow, then you are welcome to walk with us.

    WNO has taken us all on a journey. This is must-see opera!

  5. Artistic Director NJ Mitchell

    Question 1
    On Character:
    I am not Catholic, yet it seems to me that this young nun though female took upon herself the oath of a Catholic Priest regarding the seal of confessional and the power of secrecy AND I think it is possible that she meant when commenting, “ONE BOTH TO HER CHRIST AND TO HERSELF”……can be found in part in the seal of confessional” Each priest realizes that he is the ordained mediator of a very sacred and precious sacrament. He knows that in the confessional, the penitent speaks not so much to him, but through him to the Lord. Therefore, humbled by his position, the priest knows that whatever is said in confession must remain secret at all costs”…AT ALL COST.

    Question 2
    On the Journey as Opera
    Enhanced the experience

    Question 3
    On the Design
    Brilliance…. we live in the square of life NORTH SOUTH EAST and WEST. We often pretend we live life in a kind world that circles in love…..,and there are a few who do work at it but most box within the box of life. The square was truth artfully spoken.

    Question 4
    No.
    No.
    My answers to question 4 does not mean I did not receive from the production just that I was not deepened or my view positions altered by the production on our prison system in united States of America.

    ….. one more comment. I hated the line concerning the projects…., something to the effect “that may go over in the projects but not here”. More discussion anytime.

  6. C. Johnson

    Question 1 – On Character
    As we go on this journey with the young nun, Sister Helen, what does she mean when she describes it as one both to her Christ and to herself? And does she ever believe Joseph De Rocher is fully innocent or fully guilty?
    Sister Helen derives her life from the word of Christ and is married to him. Therefore, they both are one dedicated to saving the world, one soul at a time.
    Sister Helen’s soul already knows that Joseph De Rocher is guilty, because the soul does not deceive. However, her heart gives De Rocher a glimmer of hope and benefit of the doubt.
    Question 2 – On the Journey as Opera
    This is a contemporary opera about a despicable double crime. How has it been rendered as a subject for opera, and does Jake Heggie’s music help or hinder that journey?
    It was hard to digest the Prologue; even though, we hear, read, and see these crimes in the media. Heggie’s music helps the journey of this modern opera, with its subtle cadences, the spoken word, and the use of half tones.
    Question 3 – On the Design
    In this production, gone are the prison cells, courtroom, visiting room and other gritty details of actual place. Stripped down to squares of light and a few iconic symbols, how has the design built its own world, and does it serve the story?
    The squares of light and the few iconic symbols allow the audience to use its own imagination. Our life is made up of squares, even our own personal space.
    Question 4 – And at the end…
    Has the production deepened your understanding of the American prison system and has this affected your position on the death penalty?
    I have always been against the death penalty, because innocent people have been executed. The opera does a fine job making the audience rethink their position on the death penalty, if they are for it.

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