When composer Jake Heggie wrote his first opera, Dead Man Walking, in the late 1990s, he never imagined it would appear on the Metropolitan Opera stage.
“The Met mainly didn’t do new opera; it wasn’t an emphasis on them,” he said. “It just seemed like a distant dream.”
But next week, 23 years after its premiere at the San Francisco Opera, “Dead Man Walking,” with a score by Heggie and libretto by Terrence McNally, will finally head to the Met — opening a season focused on contemporary works . as the company tries to attract new audiences.
The Met, struggling with weak ticket revenues and other financial problems, is making a big bet on modern opera: Works by living composers, which have recently surpassed the classics, will make up about a third of the upcoming season. And while it’s still early, ticket sales for the first three weeks of the season so far are up about 12 percent compared to the same period last year, the company said.
Peter Gelb, general director of the Met, said he was drawn to “Dead Man Walking,” one of the few contemporary operas to have found a place in the global repertoire, in part because of its great success.
“It was too late to take it to the Met,” Gelb said. “It symbolizes the efforts we are making to truly transform the art form and appeal to a much broader audience that we need to appeal to for opera to succeed and ultimately survive.”
The opera – based on Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 memoir, which was also adapted into the 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn – portrays Sister Helen’s struggle to save the soul of a convicted murderer.
Ivo van Hove’s austere staging for the Met opens with a short film about the attack by Joseph De Rocher and his brother on a teenage boy and girl in Louisiana. The focus shifts to Sister Helen, who corresponds with De Rocher, now a death row inmate, and wants to meet him at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
The Met has assembled an all-star cast, including mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who plays Sister Helen for the fourth time, and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who played De Rocher at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2019. Mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who played the role of Sister Helen in the premiere, makes a cameo as De Rocher’s mother, and soprano Latonia Moore plays Sister Rose, while the Met’s music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts.
DiDonato said the opera resonated not because of the death penalty discussion, but because it was a “love story.”
“It’s an opera about looking at the dark side of who we are, or who others are, and asking, ‘And how do we relate to each other now?’” she said. “How do we connect with each other now? Am I firing you outright because of who you are, what you did, or what you stand for? Or is there a way I can still open my heart and connect with you?
“It becomes,” she added, “a matter of ultimately who is worthy of love and redemption.”
Van Hove, who made his Met debut last season with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” said he was drawn to directing “Dead Man Walking” because it was a “very American story,” combining individual struggles with broader social questions. In preparation for the opera, which was originally scheduled for the 2020-2021 season but was postponed by the pandemic, he said he read Sister Helen’s book but had not seen the film.
He stripped “Dead Man Walking” of many of its traditional elements, including partitions, steel bars and buoys. In his production, Sister Helen and De Rocher sometimes walk freely on the set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, without barriers between them. Live video, a hallmark of Van Hove, is used extensively, with cameramen on stage following the singers, whose faces are projected on a large screen.
That approach, Van Hove said, is intended to emphasize the emotion of the story. “A large part of the opera takes place in people’s minds,” he added. “This mental space became like a prison for us.”
Some singers initially struggled with the minimalist style, including McKinny, who had become accustomed to wearing cuffs during opera.
“At first I thought, wow, it’s hard for me to understand the isolation of death row when we don’t have death row elements,” he said. “But actually this phase is so open and so nothing, that it feels isolating in itself, in a more emotional and psychological space.”
Van Hove has reworked other elements of the opera, including a scene in which fighting breaks out as Sister Helen enters the prison. That moment is usually depicted as a scuffle, but in this production it unfolds as part of a basketball game, with cameramen moving among the prisoners.
On a recent morning, male members of the Met choir took their places on stage and prepared to rehearse at half speed — stretching, doing squats and jumping up and down. During performance, the scene lasts only 50 seconds but is crucial, Van Hove said.
“For Helen, if she goes into that prison, she goes into hell,” he said. “We feel in the public the deep-rooted aggressiveness and the deep-rooted violence that is constantly present in the prison.”
Graham, who plays De Rocher’s mother and sings an emotional plea to the pardon board, said the opera “really got into my DNA” after she sang the role of Sister Helen in 2000. She avoided work in the years that followed because she found it too painful; her father died during the original run. But recently she has taken on the role of mother, seeing that it is a way for her to reconnect with the play.
“Entering from this role is almost the other side of the coin,” she said. “Sister Helen has to keep things together and be strong for everyone. But mommy can whine and cry and scream. She can leave it all hanging. It’s very cathartic that way.”
Although the opera, which has run through more than 75 productions, has been performed in many of the world’s leading opera houses, Heggie said he still got emotional when he went to the Met for rehearsals.
“When we wrote the piece, I couldn’t have imagined it would have this kind of life or power,” he said. “And so to be in the room with these literally genius creators was a real shock. I just felt electricity in the room. I felt nervousness. I felt a great power and I felt many ideas vibrate.”