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Pensacola Opera Presents Dead Man Walking

A series of town hall discussions on crime and capital punishment are being hosted by the Pensacola Opera leading up to their production of “Dead Man Walking.” 

Pensacola Opera is producing the Florida premiere of the contemporary opera, “Dead Man Walking” which is based on Sr. Helen Prejean’s book of the same name. It recounts the story of her becoming spiritual director to a man on death row and how that led her into a vocation of activism. I spoke with Jerome Shannon, Executive Director and Music Director of Pensacola Opera.

“I’ve been lucky enough to do four other productions of this piece, and Sr. Helen has always been able to come, which is very nice, and she says more than her book or more than the play or the movie that the opera has the greatest impact. Because it’s happening in real time and we see it unfold before us, this story, this crime, the man who committed it, and we meet the young Sr. Helen and we’re all there together in this theatre, in the dark—a community. And then the music starts propelling us through this journey.“ 

The opera Dead Man Walking, written by Jake Heggie, with a libretto by Terrence McNally, premiered in San Francisco in 2000, although the story Prejean tells recalls events of 1982.

“Somebody said, ‘would you be a pen pal to a man on death row?’ and she said yes.  And then she said, ‘I had no idea that my life would change.’ And then she went to visit him and he asked her to be a spiritual advisor because he was going to be put to death and then she became aware of how the death penalty works and how capital punishment works and then she found her purpose in life or, as she says, God’s purpose for her.” 

Seventeen years later capital punishment is still a controversial topic. Florida is one of 31 states that utilizes the death penalty and since 1976, the state has executed 93 convicted murderers.  As of January 28, 2017, 383 offenders are awaiting execution. In order to relate the opera to the present Pensacola Opera is presenting a series of town hall meetings discussing criminal justice, re-entry of the incarcerated, as well as discussions with the cast of Dead Man Walking.

“I think the idea of doing the town hall meetings is getting people to discuss it and hopefully then have interest in the opera but also to see that although the opera tells her story, just makes us think.” 

“I think that if you can invite the community to discuss this topic it makes it relative to the piece that you’re doing and also that all sides are heard about this topic. Because she herself, at the beginning of the opera, when speaking to the warden at Angola, ‘I think you should know, I don’t believe in capital punishment.’ And he sings back to her “I don’t give a good damn what you believe in, we’re all just here doing our jobs.’” 

Death isn’t an uncommon occurrence in opera but Dead Man Walking is based on real events and it’s a contemporary piece, in English, so the tragedy of death is more immediate. But how does the opera serve as a vehicle for telling such a poignant story?

“The curtain goes up and it never comes back down. And one thing that’s nice about opera and about music is we start associating people with motifs. We have a motif for Sr. Helen. We have a motif for Joe, the murderer. We have a motif for the parents of the victims. And these all can come, weaving in and out, and then the one thing that happens in the opera is that everyone can sing at one time. There’s a wonderful scene, there’s a pardon board hearing where Sr. Helen has agreed to go and they are requesting that they commute his sentence from death to life and she meets the parents of the victims in the parking lot and they say to her, ‘You don’t know what It’s like to lose a child.” And she says, ‘You’re right, I don’t, I’m sorry.’ And there you have the parents, you have Sr. Helen, and then you even have the murderer’s mother singing, all at the same time about different things. But musically, because of the way their themes work and the music works it makes this very emotive and very expressive moment—and that’s one thing opera can do.” 

“It is opera at it’s most powerful, it’s telling an incredible story, it just happens to be a story about today. It’s a topic we may not want to have brought before us but it’s told so beautifully, all sides are allowed to speak, you meet the [victims’] parents, they are allowed to speak, you meet [the murderer’s] family, you see what his life was like and you really see in this that there are no winners.”

Pensacola Operais hosting town hall meetings Wednesdays, both before and after the production, at 5:30 p.m. at the Pensacola Opera center downtown. For additional details go to pensacolaopera.com. Dead Man Walking will be performed March 17 and 19 at the Pensacola Saenger Theater.