Jake Heggie is the composer of ten operas, including works based on Moby-Dick and It’s a Wonderful Life. His first opera, Dead Man Walking, with a libretto by Terrence McNally and new staging by Ivo van Hove, will open the 2023–24 season of the Metropolitan Opera in New York later this month. It adapts a memoir by Sr. Helen Prejean, whose work as a spiritual advisor to inmates on death row and advocacy against capital punishment helped bring about a major revision to the Catechism of the Catholic Church under Pope Francis. Heggie spoke recently with Associate Editor Griffin Oleynick by Zoom. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Griffin Oleynick: Dead Man Walking premiered more than two decades ago, at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. It was your first opera—you’ve since composed nine more—and one that altered the course of your career. Take us back to that moment: How did the opera originate?
Jake Heggie: I was actually working full time in the San Francisco Opera’s marketing and public-relations department when all of this unfolded in the early 1990s. I trained as a composer and pianist. But in the late eighties I developed focal dystonia—my right hand began curling into a fist. So I couldn’t play the piano, and I stopped composing.
But my day job immersed me in the magic of opera. I heard the greatest singers in the world, and got to know them, too. That spark of creativity that had always been there suddenly started burning in me again.
I began writing songs for famous singers: Frederica von Stade, Renée Fleming, and Dawn Upshaw. They loved them, and performed them all over the world. I felt free and inspired. So I began composing like nobody’s business. I also got through the focal dystonia, thanks to the Dorothy Taubma technique, and began to play the piano again.
Before long, the general director of the San Francisco Opera asked me if I’d ever thought about writing an opera. I hadn’t, but when he offered me the opportunity to do so, I immediately said “yes.” I then met with Terrence McNally, a Tony-award-winning playwright, who suggested we adapt Dead Man Walking for the stage. I shivered, every hair stood on end—I could hear the music, the possibilities, solos, duets, choruses, etc. I was just thirty-six when Terrence and I got started. I never dreamed I’d have a career inside music. But here I was, in 1998, having gone from the PR department to composer-in-residence.
I connected with Sr. Helen Prejean early on. She was very much on board, and remained active in the creative process. She gave us her blessing to use artistic license, to invent characters and change things for the stage. But she did have one request: that Dead Man Walking remain a story of redemption.
GO: Dead Man Walking isn’t really about the politics of capital punishment, but about the big themes and emotions that have long been associated with opera: fear and vengeance, love and redemption, tragedy and hope. And the score is incredibly varied, containing everything from the influence of classical Italian opera to rock, blues, jazz, and spirituals.
JH: That’s right. I find it really boring when someone just tells me how I should feel about an issue or a subject, rather than letting me feel it and think about it for myself. So capital punishment is there in the background, raising the stakes to life or death at every moment. But Terrence’s libretto doesn’t give us an argument, it invites us into experience. There’s Sr. Helen’s naïveté and her crisis of faith, but also her connection with Joseph and the families of his victims. Her spiritual journey becomes ours, too.
I love the film version of Dead Man Walking, but opera can take you deeper. You’re watching three-dimensional people go through it live, in front of you. And the performers sing without microphones, allowing you to feel the vibrations in your core.
That’s how the songs came about, too—I felt them. Take Sr. Helen’s signature hymn, “He Will Gather Us Around,” which anchors the opera. I was in New York to meet with Terrence, and as I was getting into a cab to leave for the airport, it just hit me—words, music, everything. Sr. Helen’s music changes, though, as she meets other characters. And their respective musical styles evolve and change as they encounter each other, as well.
That’s what makes this opera work: it’s specifically American and contemporary, but also timeless and universal. Unfortunately, in this country, capital punishment is still a debate, and we increased our execution rate during the Trump years. The best operas are always timely: Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is about class systems, who gets what, and whose rights matter. That’s also true of Verdi’s La Traviata and Puccini’s La Boheme. But they’re also about more than that, and they continue to resonate. In Dead Man Walking, the moral dilemma is present from the start: Is Joseph a monster, or can he be redeemed?