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‘Dead Man Walking’ Seeks to Open Hearts
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Friday, April 22, 2022
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Capital punishment and the Christian imperative for forgiveness and love are explored in Opera Idaho’s latest production: “Dead Man Walking.”

Opera Idaho will present the modern American masterwork by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally Friday and Sunday, April 22 and 24, at the Egyptian Theatre in Boise.

“Dead Man Walking” is the most performed new opera of the 21st century. Since its world premiere at San Francisco Opera in 2000, it has been staged in about 60 productions on five continents.

The opera is based on Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 memoir, which tells of her time working with death row inmates at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The story of a relationship she developed with one of the inmates, who had been sentenced to death for brutally murdering a pair of teenage lovers, was the basis for the Oscar-winning 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

This is emotionally intense opera—a heart-wrenching tale of grief, grace and redemption, said Fernando Menendez, Opera Idaho’s education manager.

“The opera itself is neither pro nor against capital punishment. It simply explores all the emotions felt by everyone involved and opens the door to dialogue,” he added. “Far more than an epistle on the death penalty, ‘Dead Man Walking’ is an exploration of the timeless and complex spiritual issues of confession, forgiveness and redemption.”

The opera features Grammy-nominated conductor Sara Jobin, who worked on the first production of the opera alongside Jake Heggie.

This opera is more intense than a normal opera, she agreed.

“One may find oneself in a stage of grief at various points in the rehearsal process. The purpose of living through this pain is to open the heart—and we do it so that the audience’s hearts may be touched in the end by the beauty of recognizing universal humanity,” she said.

Mezzo-soprano Elise Quagliata, who sings the role of Sister Helen, has forged a friendship with Sister Helen over the 10 years she’s performed the role in six different productions.

“I have personally learned so much about forgiveness through working on this role and learning from her,” she said. “This opera does not force anyone to make a decision about its subject but, rather, forces you to look, be a witness and decide how it makes you feel. Understanding the healing power of forgiveness has not only informed not only my performance but my life as I move through the world.”

Preparing for the role in the beginning was hard, Quagliata added.

“Doing a deep dive about the history of our prison system and death penalty was a lot to take in. But being as authentic as we can in these roles is what affects the audience so deeply,” she said. “We’re actors and must keep the lines between real life and stage pretty clear, but we all approach these roles with open hearts, and our tears are real because these stories are a part of all of our human experiences.”

 

Opera is a wonderful medium for a story like this because it allows people to feel things more deeply without words, said Jobin.

“Opera allows us to feel things that normally we might just think about. We might think about Idaho’s death penalty, but this opera allows us to feel it,” she said. “It also shows that no one is all good or all bad, and the justice systems set up by human beings have limitations.”

Quagliata agreed: “There’s something about sitting in an audience, experiencing a story collectively, that has a strong impact on people. Opera transports you, and you sort of forget everyone is up there singing and just go on the journey with them. Telling such a difficult story with such a beautiful medium allows us to take it all in and possibly transform the perceptions we had going in.”

Like Qaugliata, Finnish-American baritone Tim Mix, who portrays the death row inmate, has sung his role before. Other cast members include Canadian-American mezzo-soprano Stephanie Weiss, Soprano Shawnette Sulker, Tenor Steve Sanders, Baritone Brian Montgomery, Tenor Andrew Peck, Mezzo-soprano Michele Detwiler, Baritone Jason Detwiler and Soprano Sara Stejskal.

Mexican-Puerto Rican Stage Director David Randames Toro, who helped stage the production for Minnesota Opera, is making his Opera Idaho Debut.

The opera will be sung in English with English captions projected above the stage. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 22, and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 24, at the historic theater at 700 W. Main St.

Tickets start at $26 with senior, child, student, military and group discounts available. For more information, visit Operaidaho.org

COMING UP:

Opera Idaho, which is about to enter its 50th season, will stage “The Barber of Seville” Oct. 21 and 23; “Macbeth, Jan. 27 and 29, 2023, and “Rusalka on April 21 and 23, 2023.

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