One particularly compelling example occurs at the opening of Act II. A split-screen video juxtaposes Sr. Helen’s twitchy facial expressions as she sleeps fitfully on the left with the tension and pain in Joe’s arms and eyes as he powers through a set of pushups on the right. It’s a distressing dual image of confinement and separation, heightened by the relative proximity of the two actors on stage. Far more disturbing, though, is when Joe is at last strapped to the cruciform gurney. The scene unfolds in complete silence; Sr. Helen kneels as the camera zeroes in on the needle just before it is inserted by a “medical” team into Joe’s arm. As in actual executions, the whole scene is chillingly choreographed. It’s as if this killing—filmed right in front of us, with Joe’s pained face projected above—is really taking place.
In some sense, Dead Man Walking, which ends with Joe’s death at the hands of the state, follows the classic structure of operatic tragedy. Both protagonists are powerless to change Joe’s fate, as indifferent official forces—there’s the Church, represented by Fr. Grenville, who leads a hauntingly impersonal Our Father, and the State, depicted in the jovial figure of Warden Benton, whose officers chant pro-death-penalty platitudes like “an eye for an eye…the Bible demands it”—conspire to separate them. Nothing, not even the dignified pleading of Joe’s mother (mezzo-soprano Susan Graham) can stop the inexorable march of the “death machine,” which demands constant sacrifice. Musically, Heggie captures this in a devastating sextet sung by the families of Joe’s victims: “You don’t know what it’s like,” runs their reproach to Sr. Helen, whose stream of apologies is cut short by the parents’ mechanical repetition of the last words they spoke to their children (“shut the door…fix your hair…clean your room”). In another classic operatic device, delivered at the end of Act I, Helen faints, unable to seize on any harmony amid a swirling storm of sound.
But Dead Man Walking is also, as DiDonato suggested at a recent talk at Fordham’s Center on Religion and Culture, a “love story, one of the greatest in all of opera.” It’s actually multiple love stories: there’s the unlikely friendship between Sr. Helen and Joe, of course, but also the love of Joe’s mother for her son, Sr. Helen’s love for “my God…my Jesus.” There is also God’s love for Joe, experienced not just in the person of Sr. Helen, but in Joe’s ultimate capacity to forgive himself and to ask forgiveness from the parents of his victims. Heggie’s genius is to have composed a single, simple prayer, based on traditional American spirituals, in which all of these loves interact: “He will gather us around / all around / by and by / you and I / all around Him.”
The hymn, which is also Sr. Helen’s leitmotif, opens and closes Dead Man Walking and serves as a musical throughline. Depending on the scene, it’s a teaching tool, defense mechanism, theological abstraction, or desperate petitionary prayer invoked by Sr. Helen whenever she feels uneasy. Only after Joe’s execution does the song, voiced a cappella and through tears, truly become a form of testimony, both a firm declaration of hope (“He will gather us around”) and evidence of an irreversible inner transformation (“you and I”). That transformation is rooted, above all else, in a comfort with paradox: Sr. Helen knows that yes, Joe really did commit those horrible crimes, and yes, those kids really aren’t coming back; not even Joe’s death can erase their parents’ grief. But also and in some sense even more true is the fact that Joe is a “son of God,” worthy through the sheer fact of his existence of love, mercy, and redemption. The mystery does not need to be understood to be accepted and revered. The murderer, too, will be among those gathered “all around Him” in the end.
At the same Fordham talk, DiDonato said that she used to find that final aria nearly impossible to sing after the execution scene. Watching her deliver it is the sonic equivalent of watching a person pick up a bus with her bare hands, lifting the emotional weight of the cast, orchestra, and thousands of spectators with the unamplified reverberations of her body. She channels a communal feeling with a force beyond words.
As DiDonato sang Sr. Helen’s final aria on opening night, I doubted whether the star-studded, champagne-sipping gala audience had gotten it. Did Sr. Helen’s unabashed love for God—and her practice of chastity, poverty, and obedience—really resonate? But as the curtain fell and the subsequent standing ovation wore on, I noticed crumpled tissues all over the floor. The crowd applauded even more wildly as Prejean herself, dressed in a simple black suit with a red and white scarf, walked out onto the stage. I had the sense that what was being celebrated wasn’t necessarily her, or her book, or even the opera itself. It was the courage she’d had in leaving the relative comfort and safety of the convent to travel to those “spaces of suffering only God can know.” For an evening, Heggie, DiDonato, and McKinny had taken us there, making us feel like we’d been changed, too.