Dead Man Walking: Intimate View of Death Row through Opera

Jun 27, 2014

The Des Moines Metro Opera's summer 2014 season includes “Dead Man Walking”, the company’s first work from the 21st century.  It’s an adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s 1994 book about her experiences of ministering to death row inmates.  The story is based on Prejean’s early prison ministry work when she became the spiritual advisor for death row inmate, Patrick Sonnier until his execution in 1984 at the Louisiana State Penitentiary.  While the opera is based on Sonnier’s case, the story uses a fictious character, Joseph De Rocher.

During the prologue, De Rocher participates in the murder of two teenagers.  Prejean says this first scene is designed to remove any doubt about his innocence or guilt.  “So, this guy’s really gotta grow on you because we have the outrage over a terrible crime that’s done, and then we face the moral decision that as a society, now how are we going to respond?”  Prejean opposes capital punishment, but says she had to learn how to work with those who disagree with her, like the families of the victims.  

Composer Jake Heggie during a visit to Des Moines. He began writing opera in 2000 with “Dead Man Walking” and it’s been performed by more than 50 opera companies, including Des Moines Metro Opera.
Credit Photo by John Pemble

Jake Heggie composed the opera in 2000, and says his work isn’t designed to say whether the death penalty is right or wrong.  “The debate is, we have this fully alive human being who did this terrible thing.  So what are we gonna do?  And Sister Helen has to come to grips with that.  She’s in her own spiritual crisis in the opera about connection and what she believes and what she’s based her life on.”

Sister Helen Prejean says the nature of this live opera allows an audience the rare opportunity to get close to the issues surrounding capital punishment. “That’s what the arts do for us.  They open us up music has a way of bringing us to places in our heart we don’t even know we have. And it’s done masterfully. I couldn’t ask for it to be done better than it’s being done.”

You can hear a longer interview with Prejean as heard on River to River.