Renowned social justice crusader Sr. Helen Prejean is spending the weekend in St. Louis to attend the premiere of Dead Man Walking, an opera based on her book of the same name. Her Aug. 19 appearance at Union Avenue Opera begins with a dinner where guests will have an opportunity to speak with the nun, and concludes with a post-performance book signing. For more information, call 361-2881 or visit unionavenueopera.org.
LN: The last time you were in St. Louis was in 2005, and your book, The Death of Innocents, was just released. What have you been up to since then?
HP: I’ve been spending time in Wyoming, working on the prequel to Dead Man Walking. It’s called River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey. It’s the story of my life, of my faith unfurling— from growing up with a simple faith in Jesus and noninvolvement with everything else in the world to an awakening to the life and suffering of poor people in New Orleans and on death row. It’s a very accessible story about faith. Everybody has spiritual longings, and everybody wants to live out in the deep interior of their souls.
LN: Tell us about Dead Man Walking, the opera.
HP: The opera is very much about my journey. The aria sung by my character goes, My journey, my journey to the truth…It truly is. Now, I get to take the audience there. The story is very honest, and takes people to both sides. First, how could any family ever recover from such a heavy loss? In the prologue, we witness the murder: We know who did it, we don’t like him and we can’t wait for him to get what he deserves. If anybody deserves it, it’s him. But then, you meet death row inmate Joe De Rocher’s mother and brothers. And then you start to think, There’s another mother and family here. It’s very, very powerful. There’s a scene where his mother is getting ready to leave Joe for the last time, and they say, Hey, Sister Helen, would you take a photo for us? When the flash in the camera goes off, you see this little family in a moment, then it fades. It really puts people in a terrible moral dilemma, without commentary—or preaching. It’s the power of the opera, it not only brings you full drama by seeing the lives happening on the stage, but the music also opens up our hearts.
LN: How did the opera come about?
HP: It was commissioned by the head of the San Francisco Opera, who invited playwright Terrence McNally and composer Jake Heggie to come up with an opera for the millenium. Terrence had seen the film and read the book. When he and Jake met, Terrence told Jake that if he didn’t go with Dead Man, he wasn’t going to do it. And the moment they agreed to do it, Jake told me the hairs literally stood up on his neck. He immediately heard the clank of the prison gates and the suffering in the music. In the first six weeks, they had the first act done. The whole thing was written in about five months!
LN: There also is a play version of Dead Man Walking that’s being performed in high schools and colleges across the country. (De Smet Jesuit H.S. presented it in 2004.)
HP: Tim Robbins, who wrote and produced the movie, wrote the play, which is structured very much like the film. His desire was to get the discourse started and get people thinking, especially the young people. Of course, it’s all performed by student amateurs, but the dialogue is so powerful, it doesn’t matter. I do remember one of the first young women to portray me had me sounding as a Kentucky hillbilly straight out of Appalachia (laughs)!
LN:What was it like to work on the movie and the stage productions?
HP: I feel happy about the way I wrote the book. I had never written a book before! I had put it together as someone who was going back-andforth, the way I was finding out about the justice system, about how the Supreme Court worked and how it interpreted the Constitution. What I’ve learned, I’ve put in the book to help others. I heard Tim Robbins on a talk show one time, talking about his body of work and specifically, Dead Man Walking. He said that all he needed was the book—the book laid it out for him. That made me feel good—that I had written a solid, honest, good book. As for the opera, when we launched it, I just remembered thinking, When you trust the artists with your work, you turn it over to them. We had already laid good groundwork with the book and movie.
LN: Is there a difference in getting the message across with a live show?
HP: Movies are for mainstream America, and the only thing I knew about movie-making I got from Tim Robbins. It’s more visual, and the secret is good dialogue that doesn’t sound like dialogue. An opera engages differently. You can practice all you want, but when you perform it live, you shoot it out like a cannon. And you deal with all the emotions: I always hear about the cast trying to go through it all for the first time without crying. And then there’s the music—there’s nothing like a live opera.
LN: It has to be jarring to be working alongside death row inmates one day, and then attending opera premieres and galas the next.
HP: The opera is a tremendous success! It’s been performed dozens of times here and around the world. I think what keeps me grounded is that I have accompanied six human beings to their deaths, and also keep close company with the victims’ families.
LN: What are you looking forward to most on your St. Louis visit?
HP: The people—and having the conversation with them. I’m also looking forward to meeting Elise Quagliata (who will be playing me) and the cast. They’re not used to ‘Madame Butterfly’ sitting in the audience. People portrayed in an opera are usually dead! So it can freak them out, and I’m there to settle them down. Remember that this is not an opera specifically for or against the death penalty. It’s deeper than that. Everybody has to deal with it. When we get hurt, are we going to forgive and move on, or not? It brings in all those struggles of the human heart.