Wednesday, September 18, 2002


'Dead Man Walking' Premieres in N.Y.

NEW YORK (AP) - Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" is the most compelling new American opera in decades, and it's easy to see why companies have rushed to stage it.

The three-hour, two-act work, given its world premiere at the San Francisco Opera in October 2000, made its New York debut Friday night to a prolonged ovation for the cast, the composer, librettist Terrence McNally and Sisten Helen Prejean, who wrote the book on which it is based.

Heggie's music is lush and the story gripping — a death-row convict struggling to come to terms with his crime and upcoming execution.

There are influences of Gershwin and Britten in the music, which comes together with greater dramatic success than many other new works. While there is only one real "tune" — the spiritual "He will gather us around" — the music conveys the deep and often-conflicting emotions experienced by Sister Helen and Joseph De Rocher, convicted of rape and murder, and awaiting death by lethal injection.

While the subject matter is heavy, McNally also infuses light touches, such as the convict and the nun finding common emotional ground with their love of Elvis Presley. That provides a stark contrast to the brutal story being portrayed, which includes nudity and profane language.

Other new American operas have their premieres, then disappear after a revival or two. But there is a lot of interest in "Dead Man Walking" — the new staging is a coproduction that includes the Cincinnati Opera, Opera Pacific, the Austin Lyric Opera, the Michigan Opera Theater, the Pittsburgh Opera and the Baltimore Opera. This is a work that appears to have the legs to stick around.