Sister Helen Prejean fights the death penalty with opera
Standing outside the Angola State Penitentiary after witnessing the execution of Patrick Sonnier, Sister Helen Prejean struggled to wrap her head around what she had just seen. After all, in the United States, executions are hidden from the public, and few people ever witness the state killing a person -- much less deal with the complexity of advocating for a murderer who's about to be executed at the same time they're trying to support the victims' families. As one of the nation's leading advocates in the fight to abolish the death penalty, Sister Prejean faces these tensions daily and uses the power of story to advance a nationwide dialogue about the immorality of capital punishment. The memoir of her work on death row, Dead Man Walking, was adapted into an Academy Award-winning film and, most recently, an opera, written by Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie. Sister Prejean will be in Denver for a screening and book signing on Wednesday, March 12, and a death-penalty symposium on Thursday, March 13, as part of Central City Opera's Prisons, Compassion and Redemption Project, a series of public events leading up to the July performance of Dead Man Walking. In advance of those appearances, Westword spoke with Sister Prejean about the opera, the death penalty and the role of art in addressing social issues.
Courtesy of Sister Helen Prejean Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking.
Westword: Talk about your work.
Sister Helen Prejean: My work has been, for the last 25 years, to awaken the American people so we can abolish the death penalty. I've accompanied six people to execution, and I've worked closely with victims' families in their healing. I write books. I give talks. I'm interested in bringing people to the reality of what it means when we say we're going to give the state the power to kill human beings who've done crimes. It's all about story. It's all about bringing people close, personalizing the reality and then letting them sort it out for themselves. That's what art does in any form; it could be an opera, a movie or a book. It brings the reader or the audience into a reality to present the suffering on both sides. The audience looks at the reality of it and sorts it out for themselves. Their reflection is crucial.
How did this opera come into being?
The book Dead Man Walking came out in '93. By the end of '95, we had the film. The wide showing of it was '96. I got a call from my literary agent telling me that they wanted to do an opera. My instinct was to say, "Yeah, let's do an opera," because you can really bring people on the journey not only with drama, but also with music. These incredibly good, creative people came to me. Terrence McNally had seen the film Dead Man Walking -- he and Jake Heggie, who had never composed an opera. Lotfollah Mansouri (former general director of the San Francisco Opera) wanted an opera for the new millennium. He put these two guys together in a Petri dish and said, "Let's see what you come up with." It didn't go anywhere. So they broke apart for six months, and meanwhile, Terrence McNally had seen the movie, and he said, "I'm going to put Dead Man Walking out there. If Jake doesn't want Dead Man Walking, I'm not doing it. That's my only choice." As soon as Terrence McNally said Dead Man Walking, Jake said, "The hair stood up on the back of my neck, and I began to hear the music: the clanging of bars and the harshness of it and the gentleness of it as well." They wrote it all seamlessly. I think the first act was written in six weeks. They gave us Dead Man Walking. It had power to it, and it still does.
What was it like when you first saw it?
I hadn't seen many operas. I had been talking to Jake, and all I said was: "Get these two things straight: It's about redemption, and the journey to redemption is for everybody; the music must be sing-able, not that atonal stuff, where people are going to dissociate rather than connect. By the time we leave, we'd better be able to hum a tune."
When I saw it, I saw the fidelity of it. I saw me, absolutely true to form, thrown in way over my head and trying to make my way. The opera has strength in it that none of the other art forms have. First of all, they show the murder in the prologue, so you're not using any of your moral or creative energy asking, "Did you do it or not?" In the film, that's really left till the end. So we all see the murder, we know who did it, we don't like him at all because he's not taken responsibility for it, so there is a part of everybody's heart that says, "This guy deserves to get it. He deserves to die, so bring it on." The opera takes us through the whole journey of it, including the conflict with the victims' families.
Keep reading for more on Sister Prejean's advocacy against the death penalty.