Few pieces have the capacity to really change a person’s life. Enrich or augment it, sure. But alter something deep inside of you? Almost never.
But Jake Heggie’s opera “Dead Man Walking” is not an ordinary piece of music, at least in this respect. Based on Sister Helen Prejean’s wrenching book about the death penalty, “Dead Man Walking” was premiered in 2000 and has become one of the most admired American operas of the 21st century. On Friday it will receive the first of four performances by Boston Opera Collaborative, the opera’s first New England production. Michael Sakir will conduct, and he’s had colleagues who’ve performed in other productions of “Dead Man Walking.” Their accounts of audience reaction are not what you’d expect from even the most emotionally intense work of art.
“It’s incredible to hear their stories about how audience members would come up to them after the show, and one of them would be the sibling of a murder victim,” said Sakir recently. “And because of the opera, [they were] able to show forgiveness to the murderer. And this is a story that I’ve heard from multiple people who’ve performed the opera. It has more potential than any opera I can think of to change people’s lives.”
David Gram, the director of “Dead Man Walking” and Boston Opera Collaborative’s former artistic director, said the opera was chosen in large part to show how much BOC, now in its seventh season, has grown. “Dead Man Walking” is a challenge to produce, but it’s been amazingly popular since its premiere. Heggie’s website lists no fewer than 33 past and future productions, and a new recording, made at a 2011 Houston Grand Opera revival, was issued last year.
“Here was an American opera that was dealing with challenging and topical content, and it had not been done here in Boston,” Gram said during a joint phone interview with Sakir. “I think the company was at a place where, to take on a premiere, to take on a show of this size, I think there was an opportunity to create a little buzz about the company. It was definitely a leap: building on past successes and also looking forward to, I don’t want to say notoriety, but really announcing . . . the company’s willingness to take on a piece like this.”
The opera, with a libretto by playwright Terrence McNally, tells the story of Sister Helen’s decision to become spiritual adviser to Joseph De Rocher, who is on death row in Louisiana for the murder of two teenagers. Her faith and sense of goodness are tested by a man who initially refuses to admit his guilt or ask forgiveness. She must also confront the victims’ families, who initially explode with rage at the idea that she would counsel their children’s murderer. The opera’s tragic beauty rests in the way the characters in this nightmarish scenario move toward a kind of uneasy redemption.
“When it comes to new opera written today,” said Sakir, “I think it’s very rare that a composer and librettist first of all create a libretto that’s as smart as ‘Dead Man Walking,’ tells a story that is as human, and [has] a composer able to express the text and the characters as clearly and creatively as Jake Heggie does. You’ll be lucky if you find an opera today that’s conquered one of those, and ‘Dead Man Walking’ conquers all three.”
What makes the opera so powerful, Gram explained, is the fact that it takes an issue often treated as an abstract matter of right and wrong and pursues it through complex human relationships. “It’s kind of reductive to refer to it as a ‘death-penalty opera,’ ” he said. “What the opera does is it forces the audience to engage with the issues through the story, which hits us in a very visceral way. It’s complicated, it pulls us in all directions.”
He pointed out that each of the opera’s two acts has a scene with Joseph’s mother. “We see her pleading for her son’s life, and we buy into where she’s coming from, and we’re reminded that everyone in this world has a mother who cares about their child.” Each is followed by a scene with the victims’ parents, and the audience is brought back to their grief.
“These characters are honest, they’re messy,” Gram said. “To me, the death penalty and the discourse around it allow us to engage with scenes of grief and loss and mourning. I think these characters are all trying to find a way to move forward with their lives.”
The roles are a particular test for the young singers that make up BOC’s casts, Sakir said. “You cannot find more real characters in any opera. These are real people with messy, nightmarish issues that they’re going through. This is a challenging leap for them to play these characters who have raped and killed people. Or who have counseled death row inmates.”
“Or who have lost children,” Gram interjected. Still, he continued, “I think there’s something to be said for younger artists attacking this work fearlessly and with abandon.”
Asked what he’d want the audience to take away from the experience of “Dead Man Walking,” Gram called the opera “a piece that challenges our morals, our values, and it asks the difficult questions. And these are not black and white issues. There’s tons of gray in there.
“For me, it’s great that an opera can get us there,” he continued.
“It’s quite a roller coaster of emotion. There are these precious moments of joy, and then you watch these people going through hell.
“And I think it’s the kind of story that you can come in with one perspective and leave with another. And I think that’s what great art does.”
BSO adds a Patriots Day concert
For the first time in at least 20 years, the Boston Symphony Orchestra has added a concert to a season in progress. A Patriots Day concert (April 15) is intended to make up for February concerts that were canceled because of bad weather. BSO assistant conductor Marcelo Lehninger will lead the all-Beethoven program that includes the Fifth Symphony and the “Emperor” Piano Concerto, with Lexington resident Gabriela Montero as soloist in the latter.