Joyce DiDonato as Sr. Helen Prejean and Ryan McKinny as Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s 'Dead Man Walking' (Paola Kudacki/Met Opera)

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?

Sr. Helen Prejean 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: I want to ask you about the art form of opera itself. When most people think of opera, they’re not thinking of new works, or an “accessible” show. It seems like fans are wary of innovation, and critics are always declaring the opera to be dead. And yet this year the Metropolitan Opera will feature its highest number of contemporary operas ever. What explains this? Does opera have a future?

JH: When I composed Dead Man Walking, it was maybe one of two or three world premieres that year. Now there are dozens every season. Debates about whether opera has changed tend not to be very interesting, because opera has always changed. Composers and librettists have worked with stories taken from controversial books and news headlines. And they’ve mined myths and legends—things people already knew, but might be able to feel or understand in a different way. Opera needn’t feel threatened by films or streaming—the form has reinvented itself constantly for four hundred years. And there’s every reason to suppose people will still gather in theaters to hear important stories sung by gifted singers centuries from now, certainly in a different way than now.

The opera house itself is a sacred space. It’s a place for community, where we gather to experience these things together—and then there’s room for dialogue. The ritual of opera allows this to occur naturally, and that’s the brilliance of the way Terrence selected the story and wrote the libretto for Dead Man Walking. Most people already know something about it. They definitely have opinions about the morality of the death penalty. So it invites a kind of dialogue and conversation before people even walk into the theater.

We can’t predict the future, but I see a lot of vitality. Opera will look and sound different, reinventing itself the same way that America has. That’s how it was in Italy in the nineteenth century—they laid claim to it, made it their own. So did the French, the Germans, and the Russians. And, I should add, the Americans. Look at Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, or the work of composers Carlisle Floyd, Philip Glass, and John Adams. They’ve all done so much work to expand the form. And now there’s an explosion because opera companies have realized they can’t just depend on the status quo—they have to engage with contemporary society, or they’ll be left behind.

That’s not to say we shouldn’t perform old operas—we should! But the way we stage and perform them is changing, and it only makes those works richer and more relevant. Most of all, what the opera needs is young people. But they have to own it—from the writing to the directing to the singing, even the unusual spaces in which they perform. They have to feel like it’s theirs, not their grandparents’. This is happening in cities all across the country—not just New York, but Philadelphia, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston—and it’s very smart.

The opera world is precarious if it only clings to what it has been. But there’s so much happening now, and it’s very exciting. If opera wants to attract a younger audience, it has to give young people something to get excited and care about. And that means exploring: not just appealing subjects, but actually making the performance an event. There’s no lack of interest in big musical events. Just look at this past summer’s Taylor Swift tour!

There’s another important fact worth mentioning. Forty years ago, American schools began removing arts and music programs from elementary and middle schools. And that was a huge mistake, because the arts are essential to what makes us human. What are the humanities? They’re the things that humanize and connect us, that help us identify a shared vision. Defunding humanities programs has had a huge social cost. 

If we want opera to flourish, our first priority should be to get the arts and humanities back into public schools as quickly as possible. We should be focused on that, as on almost nothing else. Young people are starved for this kind of stuff. They love everything opera contains: not just the music, but the different kinds of singing and acting, the movement and costumes and set design. But we have a couple of generations that have been deprived of it—they haven’t experienced it and don’t know why it matters. But it does matter, and we need to do a better job of letting people know that the opera house is their community center, too.

If we want opera to flourish, our first priority should be to get the arts and humanities back into public schools as quickly as possible.

GO: Speaking of new operas, this fall your most recent opera, Intelligence, is having its world premiere at Houston Grand Opera. Tell us about it.

JH: Yes, this is my fourth big project with them. They’re known for surprising themes and different ways of presenting things. I don’t like to just repeat myself as a composer, either—the scores of Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick, and It’s a Wonderful Life each engaged different parts of my creativity, and sound very different as a result.

Intelligence began taking shape eight years ago. That’s when I first heard the story of two Richmond women—Elizabeth Van Lew and Mary Jane Bowser—who ran a pro-Union spy ring during the Civil War. It’s an incredible story: Van Lew was from an aristocratic family, and Bowser was an educated slave with a photographic memory. Together they helped turn the tide of the war. The story captivated me, and I haven’t been able to let go of it since. We’re going to tell it with dance, led by our director and choreographer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of the Brooklyn company Urban Bush Women. And it will be voiced by some of the greatest opera singers in the world, with beautiful set and production design.

But this is what opera is supposed to be, at its best: the creation of great beauty, compelling drama, and possibility. It’s not about winning or losing, as if opera were a sports contest. It’s about everybody—composers, librettists, cast, musicians, crew, even the audience—working together at the highest level possible. There’s a way in which everyone involved actively participates in the building of something that exceeds them individually. The stakes are incredibly high, because if anyone is off, it affects the whole production. A great night of opera, when it happens, is incredible—a miracle, really.

GO: I imagine it must be somewhat difficult to attend premieres of operas you’ve composed and not be able to control the performance—you’re not a conductor, for instance, so you won’t be conducting the Metropolitan Opera’s opening night performance of Dead Man Walking. What’s it like to watch your creation unfold under such intense circumstances?

JH: For some people, it’s nerve-wracking. But for me, I am just there to send the most positive, supportive wishes I possibly can to everyone involved. Because it’s not about me at all, it’s not my night. It’s something I put on paper and then let go—it’s up to the performers to see what it means to them, to create something in the moment. All of my energy goes to supporting them so they can have the best night possible, to do work they’re proud of.

But it’s bigger than any single performer. Opera creates a powerful vibration, something truthful that resonates with an audience. That’s why we’re all there—and that’s why I never say “this is ‘my’ opera.” Because it literally takes a village. And it creates a village. It becomes “our opera,” this thing that’s out there that everyone takes ownership of, makes their own. Because when something works in a theater, that’s what makes all the rehearsals and revisions and cuts worth it—that’s what I love more than anything.

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the September 2023 issue: View Contents
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