I think I have seen four or five operas in my life. There is no way that I would describe myself as an “opera buff.” However, as soon as I learned that the opera “Dead Man Walking” was going to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera House in October, I knew that I had to see it. I did see it and the experience was absolutely wonderful. The following is an excerpt from the Playbill:
“The most widely performed new opera of the last two decades, ‘Dead man Walking’ is adapted from the groundbreaking memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, which also inspired the hugely successful and culturally significant film directed by Tim Robbins.
“The story concerns Prejean’s introduction to the world of capital punishment, first as a spiritual advisor to a single inmate and then slowly, inexorably, as an advocate to all individuals condemned to death. What made the book and film capture national and global attention was precisely what made the subject matter a natural for the operatic stage — the moral complexity and deep nuance of its themes and characters.
“In converting the source material into a compelling piece of theater, composer Jake Haggie and librettist Terrence McNally conflated the two main inmates discussed in the book into one fictional character, Joseph De Rocher, and Haggie created a score that recalls Sister Helen’s prose and her advocacy style: direct, unaffected, and unflinchingly honest — but not without a deep understanding of the heart and humanity inside each one of us.”
Since I only learned of the opera a few weeks ago I was surprised to learn that it is the most widely performed new opera of the last 20 years. That the opera has been seen by thousands of people I take as exceptionally good news. That so many have experienced the beauty and moral depth of “Dead Man Walking” is encouraging.
I am always looking for contemporary works of art — plays, films, novels, and other forms of art — that speak to my religious faith. I often find that such works are not easily found in our secular culture. That so many have experienced the opera, “Dead Man Walking,” I take as really good news.
Sister Helen Prejean’s apostolate to people who are on death row has deeply influenced my conscience. By “conscience” I mean the habitual way that someone makes moral judgments.
There are many realities that can influence a person’s conscience such as family, friends, schools attended, books read, and the culture within one’s life. Because a conscience is a habit, it does not change easily. For much of my life I thought of capital punishment as moral.
My basic attitude was “an eye for an eye.” I thought that someone who had murdered a person should be punished by being put to death. I no longer think that but it took a long time for me to change my view of capital punishment.
I think I first became aware of Sister Helen’s apostolate when I heard her give a lecture concerning her work with people on death row. This was probably the first step in my journey toward changing my view of capital punishment. I was deeply impressed by Sister Helen’s talk. Some time later
I read that Pope St. John Paul II taught that capital punishment was sometimes morally wrong. Pope Francis developed that teaching and said that capital punishment is always morally wrong. I think it is correct to say that because of Pope Francis’ statement the official teaching of the Church is that capital punishment is always immoral.
Composer Jake Haggie being interviewed in the September, 2023, issue of Commonweal said the following:
“Forty years ago, American schools began removing arts and music programs from elementary and middle schools. And that was a huge mistake, because the arts are essential to what makes us human. What are the humanities? They’re the things that humanize and connect us, that help us identify a shared vision. Defunding the humanities programs has had a huge social cost.
“If we want opera to flourish, our first priority should be to get the arts and humanities back into public schools as quickly as possible. We should be focused on that as on almost nothing else. Young people are starved for this kind of stuff.
“They love everything opera contains: not just the music, but the different kinds of singing and acting, the movement and costumes and set design. But we have a couple of generations that have been deprived of it — they haven’t experienced it and don’t know why it matters. But it does matter, and we need to do a better job of letting people know that the opera house is their community center, too.”
I believe that the opera, “Dead Man Walking,” in addition to being a beautiful work of art, has the power to challenge the consciences of those who see it.