Opera as a piece of musical theatre: mixing of genres in modern American tradition
'Dead Man Walking’ by Jake Heggie at the Barbican Centre, Wigglesworth/BBSCO/BBC Singers, 20 February 2018
The Barbican performance of the staged version of American composer Jake Heggie’s opera ‘Dead Man Walking’, that is based on the memoir of Helen Prejean relating her experiences with men on the death row, was anticipated with excitement in London. Somehow, the opera that has been written in 2000 and received its world premiere in San Francisco Opera at the same year, comes to the UK only now, in 2018, getting its 60th performance since its conception. The team behind the production are Terence McNally as librettist, Leonard Foglia as a director, and Jake Heggie as a composer, with Joyce DiDonato starring in it as she did when the opera was premiered. So, indeed, the opera, being a one-off event, was very much looked forward to by all London music afficionados, especially since Joyce DiDonato has just made a series of extraordinary appearances in Rossini’s ‘Semiramide’ and is generally loved by British audiences.
The evening began with a pre-opera talk of the composer Jake Heggie with the director Leonard Foglia moderated by Edward Seckerson. It was run in Frobisher Auditorium 1 on the top floor of a labyrinth-like Barbican building and caused a bit of a stir as people had to queue in a winding fashion on the stairway leading to the fourth floor despite places being available in relative abundance. The talk itself proved a really useful insight, as I am sure many people in the audience did not know much about modern American opera. It, if the composer Jake Heggie is to be believed, turned out to be happily locating itself in the broader genre of musical theatre. That is what actually composer was insisting on: he said he liked to write songs, that is how he started while still being a PR person at San Fransisco opera, and the motives and melodies is what he is best in, as he likes delivering stories of particular characters through music. Heggie also mentioned that he did not see much difference between opera and musical theatre, and when being asked when he would write a musical, always insisted that he has already has done so by the virtue of writing pieces where music is sung by characters on stage. Foglia was also supporting this view on non-distinction through saying that ‘opera’ means just a ‘work’, a piece performed on stage and does not presume any limitations in its characteristics. The two men were saying some other important things – namely about the story itself (and Sister Helen’s biography), and about their respective careers which seem to have been boosted dramatically by this opera, but it is this genre discussion that was most important for me for understanding the ‘Dead Man Walking’.
I must admit I haven’t seen many modern operas (yet), and ‘Dead Man Walking’ is one of the first on the list, and I haven’t seen any American modern operas either, but whether I would easily call ‘Dead Man Walking’ an opera as I envisaged it before coming to see it remains a question. As I started a conversation with another fellow critic to my left, he said he felt the score was imbued with American tradition of Gershwin and Sondheim, while another critic from Oxford mentioned it felt more like a musical to him. And here I think I would humbly agree, and I am inclined to treat is as such. This is the piece where the story is told with simplicity only to be found in musicals. Yes, it is a journey of an incredibly brave, strong and kind woman, but it is still too straightforward and too moralistic to feel any real empathy towards it. Yes, all the milestones of moral discussion are there: we should feel compassion for Helen Prejean, and admire her kindness and stoicism in being with a man on death row, and appreciate her resistance to challenges coming from almost everyone (including the priest of Louisiana prison). They are indeed deserving highest praise, but it does not give a twist, a dramatic uncertainty or ambiguity to the plot, in my eyes, because it is all so good and right. And that simplicity, in my mind, is very characteristic of a musical, and I am inclined to think, might also be intended for Americal audiences who might enjoy that kind of straightforwardness, or might expect being given a good lesson in human kindness while being comfortably seated in their expensive places.
Joyce DiDonato indeed is a perfect performer for this role, and she is kind and compassionate, and very sincere in her evocations of Christ as her spiritual leader. However, all these character colours are there from the very beginning and I have nothing more to keep my attention later on apart from DiDonato’s unfailingly beautiful voice. I was almost nostalgic for a much deeper psychological dilemma (including an unsuspected incestual feeling) that was characteristic of her role in Semiramide and gave her much more dimension and depth both as a singer and an actor. However, she was still excellent in her vocal delivery, and one could not get enough of her beautiful voice, but one sensed there was something special about this particular singer that was not fully revealed through such genre of music. It seems, DiDonato was exploring this side of her talent deliberately, as her continuing collaboration with Heggie has proven (the recent one is a comic opera ‘Great Scott’), but one reserves the right to prefer her in other kinds of operatic roles.
Michael Mayes, who was singing the role of Joseph de Rocher, in this sense got all the dramatism partly missing from other roles, as it is usually a bad guy who has advantage of an interesting role. He was playing the criminal who in our eyes had to gradually reveal his good qualities while we knew that he undeniably committed the crime. The fact of his guilt, by McNally's decision, was revealed in the very beginning by re-enactement of rape and murder in a style similar to a pantomine in Elisabethan drama. Many moments in Mayer’s performance were terribly moving, revealing his ‘normality’. There was sensitivity to a woman’s touch (‘everything is going to be allright’ aria where he remembers putting his head into a partner’s lap), his love for his mother and siblings, his final admittance of his almost accidental killling and begging for forgiveness while already being strapped for lethal injection. His fear of death, his loneliness, even his exercising in prison while awaiting for the 4th August and his mind's refusal to imagine that he, a healthy and well-built man, would no longer exist – all that was extremely powerful. The character’s torment was exquisitely revealed through Heggie’s music and Mayer’s incredibly honest and, if one can make a pun here, vocally and psychologically muscular performance.
I also liked the dramatism created by singers, composer and director in the scenes of interaction of the mother of the murderer and the parents of killed teenagers. Heggie said that this sextet came to him in its fullness as he was getting into a taxi (interesting insight into the intricacies of a creative mind). Also very touching was the gospel about God ‘who would gather us around’ which was framing the whole performance through being only a nice song uniting small children and growing into a symbol of people forgiving each other or trying to do so in the end of it. While listening to it, one felt that Joseph de Rocher was one of those little boys from the orphanage as he was standing there almost like a Christ on the cross trembling in fear. I also enjoyed immensely the work of Mark Wigglesworth with BBC Symphony Orchestra and BBC Singers who impeccably delivered rich orchestration of this piece of music and its frequent switches of tempi reflecting the moods of the characters and dramatic development of the plot. The score, including the choral parts depicting crowds of criminals in the prison, sounded so rich and powerful one almost wished one could listen to it separately from the musical lines. Musically, strangely enough, this is the part of Heggie’s work that I enjoyed most of all during the evening, as it revealed his mastery as a composer in a more genuine form than his deliberately chiselled melodic ideas intended for singing only. Overall, the evening made one think about the blurring of genres on modern musical stage, and also provoked the audiences to consider themes of forgiveness, compassion, societal responsibility for commited crimes, and the levels at which we are all human. It was especially wonderful was to see all the people in the Barbican united in their enthusiasm for this opera, rising up to give it a standing ovation.
Cast, conductor Mark Wigglesworth, composer Jake Heggie and director Leonard Foglia
Photo credits: Marc Allan/Barbican