dead man walking at somerville theater

A colleague and I, intrigued by the advertisement on the train of “Dead Man Walking” the “opera”, saw it today at Somerville theater. Colleague left at intermission citing splitting headache while I continued to the end. If I have to summarize it: I saw a wonderful “play” today, one with “lots of music, LOTS”, colleague added. We are unsure the difference between an opera and a musical, but in our limited experience, we concluded it was more a musical. The work was commissioned more than 10 years ago for San Francisco Opera House premiere (wow, Susan Graham was Sister Helen and Frederica von Stade the mother!!) and is based on a true story as written in the novel by Sister Helen Prejean and put to a hugely successful Hollywood movie with Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn in an all-star cast. I saw it in theater back then, crying my eyes out toward the end. The idea of it being put to music intrigued both of us. As announced at the beginning, the Boston Opera Collaborative has worked tirelessly for the last 2 years to bring this work to Boston this month.

There are many layers, let’s start first with the cast. The acting is top notch, highly convincing. This starts with the portrayal of Sister Helen (Courtney Miller) and ends with the portrayal of Joseph De Rocher the convicted rapist and killer on death row (Jonathan Stinson). The mother (portrayed and sung by Felicia Gavilanes) also had very strong scenes first to the appeal board begging them to spare her son’s death and second in her last conversation with her son just before execution. In term of voice, I quite like all three main characters’ voices. But this is where the question of musical versus opera comes in.

Actually there are two parts to it as we briefly post-analyzed: the singing and the music. There are countless places when sister Helen said “I’m in despair” or “I’m sorry” for example. I ask the question: if I don’t understand English, would I know that’s what she said? The answer is No. (a) Is she not shaping the words in such a way to portray this emotion? or (b) Is she trying hard but the music itself doesn’t give her much to express? Not sure, i always thought it’s the singer’s responsibility to bring it out, but never quite think of (b) until when colleague brought it up (he has strong musical background, i don’t). I have discussed this before, and to me this lack of emotional expression in the music is my (and colleague’s) rough dividing line between musical and opera: In musical, you “see” the emotion clearly in the spoken words and in the facial expression + acting, whereas in opera you should “hear” it. That is: the music should give you hint to the various state of mind, emotions, actions. Hearing it allowing you to “imagine” it. I tried hard to focus on passages where deep emotion were being expressed in words (libretto), but to my (musically untrained, though colleague’s is highly trained but to jazz) ears I couldn’t hear/feel it. To summarize, it was an evening of exceptional theater, but I’m not sure if I’d call it an opera.

But then again, let’s roll back a little bit. Last year I heard for the first time “Nixon in China” (on TV), and like my colleague today, i got a splitting headache after an hour of what i’d loosely call “sopranos’ screaming to ear-scratching music”. Bad terminology i know, but as recent as last month, in Britten’s “The turn of the screw”, I heard similar thing at times: sopranos singing quite loud pronouncing perfectly English words. Even in many attempts to block out the “English” part, hearing the underlying music they were singing is very difficult because the singing speech is ,by my definition, disruptive music (think lost musical signal, the mouth is constantly opening and closing rapidly to produce perfectly pronouncing words full of consonants “p”, “m”, “t” etc. while trying to be on the right “notes”, as opposed to shaping the notes (?)) This type of singing can be true for all voice types, but sopranos stick out the most to my ears in these kind of “modern” music. (modern = clashing in ears most of the times). Actually the orchestral music today at times sounded like soundtrack from a movie…

There were glimpses of sister Helen attempting to shape her (musical) emotion, and at these points I am even more unsure if the music allows her to. Unlike in Britten’s earlier mentioned work, let’s take the “haunted tune” as an example, the music leaves some sort of goosebumps on you, either when sung by the little boy or by the governess. In Dead Man walking, there’s a “similar” tune perhaps, “He will gather us around”, He being the lord. The piece started with sister Helen singing it to little children at the Nun’s house and ended with her singing it over Joseph’s dead body on the execution table. Let’s just say the final moment, i was hoping the tune would leave lingering thoughts, despair, something… along that vocal line, but instead, it was sort of a moment of a singer maneuvering some “ups and downs” in the score that prevents you from having any reflection on what had just happened… Many examples here are on Sister Helen’s role because she’s the center of the opera, but this singing speech seemed to apply to the whole cast..

Moving on, we also had an ongoing discussion about the libretto. Here again we both independently thought it was more a play. The one-line jokes (e.g., Sister Rose to Sister Helen: “Earth calling sister Helen”, small talks (e.g., cop telling Sister Helen he got audited the year he pulled over a tax official, etc.), these are very specific details, how would you put such “jokes” into music? If you just do so by having the singers saying exactly that, that’s theater to me. When thinking of putting something to music, i somehow imagine you’d simplify the words, cut it short, make it rhyme (?) and shape music around it. Perhaps that’s just one of the many possible ways. Explicitly saying things (e.g., “Fuck you” or describing it down to the letter “t”) spell everything out to a native-speaking audience and deprives one the imagination of the situation…

Altogether, I don’t mean to say much negative about the afternoon. It was superb theater, great efforts all around from the singers and producers to bring us the work, and lots of things to discuss between colleague and I. In an opera production, a slightly different take from the conductor, different emphasis on various orchestral solos, slightly different take from various singers, better house with quality sound (this was at a local theater), and sometimes things emerge as so obvious. Other times, one is left with lots of questions, but I think it’s great and gives one the opportunity to explore the work at depth.
When leaving the theater, i wasn’t sure if I want to listen to this again but oh, heyyyy, listen! that’s Susan Graham’s take of the last tune. I’m gonna get that whole cd, we have it at library here! quite like it actually 🙂

So, i might come back in the week follows with more thoughts…