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The Gripping Tale Of Dead Man Walking 
A tragic story about guilt and redemption gets a special touch at the Civic Opera House 
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As a spiritual adviser, Sister Helen supports De Rocher to the end. Below, Susan Graham (as De Rocher's mother) fights for her son's appeal while the victims' relatives listen. 
Brett Beiner Photography
In the Lyric Opera presentation of Dead Man Walking, Patricia Racette (Sister Helen Prejean) and Ryan McKinny (Joseph De Rocher) are center stage.
  FROM the very beginning, the Lyric Opera production of Dead Man Walking grabs your attention (hard), shakes your sensitivities and shines a bright spotlight on the heated and ongoing controversy associated with the death penalty, particularly the opposition to the execution of those on death row––no matter how heinous their crimes. 
   With music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terrence McNally, the Lyric premiere that runs through November 22 is based on a New York Times bestseller by Sister Helen Prejean, a noted anti-death penalty advocate, who became the spiritual adviser for Joseph De Rocher, who was sitting on death row at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for his horrific crimes against a young couple, including rape, a shooting and brutally stabbing his rape victim 37 times.  
   In Dead Man Walking nothing is sugarcoated when it comes to incarceration. The production’s story, also depicted in the Academy Award-winning movie that stars Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon, is powerful and raw to the point of touching a nerve. The reality is palpable, giving audiences an inside look at death row and many elements of its harsh atmosphere, including the hoots, howls and unbridled vulgarities that erupt when a woman from the outside enters the perimeter––even if she’s a nun.
   At the heart of the story is the relationship between two people with different life experiences and different levels of respect for life. De Rocher is a killer, a predator with little or no conscience. Sister Helen works with little children at Hope House and sees inmate number 95281 as nothing more than one of God’s children. Because of her unshakeable stand against capital punishment, she wanted to help him. Before meeting face-to-face, the two unlikely individuals began a letter-writing relationship as De Rocher awaited his failed appeal and ultimately had to prepare himself for execution at midnight on August 4. All the while Sister Helen fought for officials to spare the murderer’s life, she never wavered, even when confronted by the angry parents of the victimized couple. Throughout the three-hour presentation, observers can feel the weight of Sister Helen’s plight, even though some are still confused by her efforts to console and comfort a convicted, defiant killer.
   In addition to the individual cast performances, the set (Michael McGarty), the lighting (Brian Nason) and sound design (Roger Gans), the music in Dead Man Walking is compelling during every step in this captivating journey, beginning with a fitting and ominous overture. The two main characters, bass-baritone Ryan McKinny (De Rocher) and soprano Patricia Racette (Sister Helen), exhibit their vocal range to pleasingly accompany Sister Helen’s and De Rocher’s journey and transformation. Other incredible voices include mezzo-soprano Susan Graham (De Rocher’s mother), soprano Whitney Morrison (Sister Rose, a confidante of Sister Helen) and baritone Gordon Hawkins (prison warden George Benton), all of whom delivered memorable performances. Nicole Paiement, the founder, artistic director and conductor of San Francisco’s Opera Parallèle, is making her Lyric debut to conduct these performances. 
   Perhaps the most critical of reviewers, Sister Helen herself, says despite the success of the book and film, the opera offers more. “The opera version is brilliantly done,” she has said. “It’s the fullness of art. It’s live drama on the stage, which brings the story close to people, and the music is so beautiful. As they say, music instructs the emotions. There are some genius parts in the opera that neither the movie [nor] the book were able to capture.”
   No matter the vehicle of presentation, the incredible Dead Man Walking story is special––whether in book, film or on stage––because if forces viewers to walk in each character’s shoes. Maybe director Leonard Foglia sums it up best, saying: “Sister Helen’s journey is our journey, our journey to the truth––the truth about ourselves."
For more information and tickets, go to www.lyricopera.org.
Photographs by Ken Howard