Dead Man Walking makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theater since West Side Story THE GUARDIAN (London)


The opera Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie at Houston Grand Opera, 2011

Joyce DiDonato and Philip Cutlip

Photo Felix Sanchez

Dead Man Walking is an opera in two acts by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. Based on the narrative book by Sister Helen Prejean, it tells the journey of a Louisiana nun who becomes the spiritual advisor to a convicted murderer on Angola’s death row.
Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie - San Francisco Opera 2000

Photo © Ken Friedman
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Commissioned by San Francisco Opera, the opera received its highly acclaimed first performance at the War Memorial Opera House on Oct 7, 2000 in a landmark production that starred Susan Graham (Sister Helen), John Packard (Joseph De Rocher) and Frederica von Stade (Joseph’s Mother) with conductor Patrick Summers leading the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus. It was directed by Joe Mantello and designed by Michael Yeargan with lighting by Jennifer Tipton and costumes by Sam Flemming. Due to popular demand, the original production of seven performances was increased to nine, most of them completely sold out.
The opera Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie at Houston Grand Opera, 2011. Joyce DiDonato & Frederica Von Stade.

Joyce DiDonato & Frederica von Stade

Photo Felix Sanchez

By now Dead Man Walking has been seen internationally in more than 40 productions on five continents, making it one of the most performed of new American operas. It has received two live recordings, the first on ERATO of the original cast in 2000, and the second on Virgin Classics from Houston Grand Opera in 2011, starring Joyce DiDonato (Sister Helen), Philip Cutlip (Joseph) and Frederica von Stade (Joseph’s Mother). The creation of the opera was the subject of a documentary, And Then One Night: The Making of Dead Man Walking, aired nationally on PBS in 2002.

The opera Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie at San Francisco Opera, 2000. Jay Hunter Morris, Susan Graham, John Packard.

Jay Hunter Morris, Susan Graham, John Packard & David Okerlund

Photo Ken Friedman

Several productions of Dead Man Walking have been created, including a widely performed version by director Leonard Foglia with designs by Michael McGarty. The first European production was at the Dresden Semperoper in 2006, directed by Niklaus Lehnhoff and repeated at Vienna’s Teater an der Wien in 2007. The Australian premiere at the 2003 Adelaide Festival featured the original production by Joe Mantello, while the Canadian premiere at the Calgary Opera in 2006 featured a new production by Kelly Robinson. Over the years, additional productions have been created by companies in Sweden, Ireland, Germany, South Africa, Montreal, and recently in the United States by Opera Parallele in San Francisco, as well as companies in Boston, St. Louis, Eugene, Central City, Des Moines, and at the University of Michigan and Northwestern University.

In 2008, a reduced orchestration was created for a production at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. That orchestration was further edited in 2013 and is now widely used.
The original version of Dead Man Walking (recorded live) was revised during the East Coast premiere at New York City Opera in September 2002. This is the final version of the opera.


Conductor Patrick Summers
Director Joe Mantello
Set Design Michael Yeargan
Lighting Jennifer Tipton
Costumes Sam Flemming
Musical Preparation Bryndon Hassman, Adelle Eslinger, John Churchwell, Ernest Frederic Knell, Sara Jobin
Chorus Conductor Ian Robertson


Conductor John DeMain
Director Leonard Foglia
Set Design Michael McGarty
Lighting Brian Nason
Costumes Jess Goldstein


Sister Helen Prejean Susan Graham, Kristine Jepson
Joseph de Rocher John Packard, Teddy Tahu Rhodes
Joseph’s Mother Frederica von Stade
Sister Rose Theresa Hamm-Smith
Father Grenville Jay Hunter Morris
Howard Boucher Gary Rideout
Jade Boucher Catherine Cook
Owen Hart Robert Orth
Kitty Hart Nicolle Foland
Warden George Benton John Ames
First Guard/A Motor Cop David Okerlund

The San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus
The San Francisco Girls’ Chorus, Magen Solomon
The San Francisco Boys’ Chorus, Ian Robertson
The Golden Gate Boys’ Chorus, Steven Meyer



3 Flutes (3rd doubling Alto Flute and Piccolo), 2 Oboes, English Horn, 2 Clarinets in Bb (2nd doubling Bass Clarinet), 3 Bassoons (3rd doubling Contrabassoon), 4 Horns in F, 3 Trumpets in C, 2 Trombones, Bass Trombone, Harp, Piano, Timpani, Percussion (2 players), Strings

A reduced orchestration was created by Jeffrey W. Richmond and Michael Sakir.


The original production by San Francisco Opera premiered October 7, 2000 at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House. The production was directed by Joe Mantello and featured sets by Michael Yeargan, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, and costumes by Sam Flemming.

In 2001 a new production of Dead Man Walking was commissioned by seven American opera companies: Opera Pacific, Cincinnati Opera, New York City Opera, Austin Lyric Opera, Michigan Opera Theater, Pittsburgh Opera and Baltimore Opera. Directed by Leonard Foglia and designed by Michael McGarty, the production features costumes by Jess Goldstein and lighting by Brian Nason.



A list of companies who have performed or scheduled future performances of the opera follows:

1. San Francisco Opera (2000) — World Premiere

2. Opera Pacific (2002) — New Production

3. CincinnatiOpera (2002)

4. New York City Opera (2002)

5. Austin Lyric Opera (2003)

6. Michigan Opera Theater (2003)

7. State Opera of South Australia (2003) — First International Production

8. Pittsburgh Opera (2004) — Live Broadcast on National Public Radio

9. Calgary Opera (2006) — New Production. Canadian Premiere.

10. Baltimore Opera (2006)

11.Dresden Semperoper (2006) — New Production. European Premiere.

12. Malmö Opera (2006-2007) — New Production. Scandinavian Premiere.

13. Sydney, Australia (2007) — New Production

14.Dresden Semperoper  (2007) — Revival.

15. Vienna Klangbogen Festival (2007)

16. Hagen, Germany (2007-2008)

17. Dublin, Ireland (2007) — New Production

18. University of Colorado at Boulder (2007) — New Production. First complete university production.

19. University of Nebraska in Lincoln. (2008) — New Production. Directed by William Shomos and conducted by Tyler White.

20. Malmö Opera (2009) (revival)

21. Fort Worth Opera(2009)

22.Dresden SemperOper (2009) (revival)

23.Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen (2009)

24. Cape Town Opera, South Africa (2009)

25. Houston Grand Opera (2011) – 10th Anniversary Production

26. Union Avenue Opera, St. Louis (2011)

27.Tulsa Opera (2012)

28. Dresden SemperOper (2012) – revival

29. Fayetteville Opera (2013)

30. Opéra de Montréal (2013)

31. Boston Opera Collaborative (2013)

32. Eugene Opera (2013)

33. The Modern American Music Project (2013)

34. Staatstheater Schwerin, Germany (2014)

35. Madison Opera (2014)

36. Central City Opera (2014)

37. Des Moines Metro Opera (2014)

38. University of Michigan (2014)

39. Dayton Opera (2015)

40. Opera Parallele, San Francisco (2015)

41. Northwestern University (2015)

42. Opera Parallele at The Broad Stage, Santa Monica (2015)

43. Indiana University, Bloomington (2015)

44. Opera Nuova, Edmonton (2015)



Upcoming and Past Performances Since 2012

Oct 16, 17, 23, 24

Dead Man Walking in a new production at Indiana University, conducted by David Neely, directed by Jose Maria Condemi with designs by Steven Kemp.
More Perf. Info.
Indiana University Type: Dead Man Walking  
June 30, July 2, 3, 4

Dead Man Walking at the Opera Nuova Festival in Edmonton. Conducted by Rosemary Thomson. Directed by Brian Deedrick.
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Opera Nuova Type: Dead Man Walking  
Mar 7 - 8

Dead Man Walking at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica. Opera Parallele presents the Los Angeles premiere of the opera, bringing its San Francisco production to the acclaimed Broad Stage for two performances only.
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The Broad Stage Type: Dead Man Walking  
Feb 27, Mar 1

Dead Man Walking at Dayton Opera, conducted by Jerome Shannon and directed by Gary Briggle, featuring Catherine Martin (Sister Helen), Zachary Gordin (Joseph DeRocher), Margaret Gawrysiak (Joseph’s Mother), Minnita Daniel-Cox (Sister Rose). Schuster Center for the Performing Arts, Dayton, Ohio.
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Center for the Performing Arts Type: Dead Man Walking  
Feb 20, 22, 26, 28

Dead Man Walking at Northwestern University; conducted by Michael Sakir; directed by Michael Ehrmann
Type: Dead Man Walking  
Feb 20 - 22

Dead Man Walking at Opera Parallele in San Francisco. The first production in San Francisco since the world premiere in 2000. Jennifer Rivera (Sister Helen), Michael Mayes (Joseph DeRocher), Catherine Cook (Joseph’s Mother), Talise Trevigne (Sister Rose), Robert Orth (Owen Hart); conducted by Nicole Paiement; directed in a bold, new production by Brian Staufenbiel.
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Opera Parallele Type: Dead Man Walking  
Nov 13 - 16

Dead Man Walking at University of Michigan Power Center for the Performing Arts.
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University of Michigan Power Center for the Performing Arts Type: Dead Man Walking  
Jul 5 - 27

Dead Man Walking at Central City Opera; 10 performances at the historic Central City Opera House in Colorado, directed by Ken Cazan, conducted by John Baril.
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Central City Opera Type: Dead Man Walking  
June 28, July 6, 8, 11, 19

Dead Man Walking at Des Moines Metro Opera in Iowa: Elise Quagliata (Sister Helen), David Adam Moore (Joseph), Margaret Lattimore (Mrs De Rocher), Karen Slack (Sister Rose), Wayne Tigges (Owen Hart); conducted by David Neely, directed by Kristine McIntyre
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Des Moines Metro Opera Type: Dead Man Walking  
Apr 27

Dead Man Walking in a concert performance at DePaul University Elise Quagliata (Sister Helen), Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek (Joseph), Jane Bunnell (Mrs. DeRocher), Joelle Lamarre (Sister Rose)
Type: Dead Man Walking  
Apr 25,27

Dead Man Walking at Madison Opera Daniela Mack (Sister Helen), Michael Mayes (Joseph DeRocher), Susanne Mentzer (Mrs DeRocher), Karen Slack (Sister Rose); conducted by John DeMain; directed by Kristine McIntyre
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Madison Opera Type: Dead Man Walking  
Jan 24, 26, 30, Mar 9, 21, 27, Apr 12, May 7

Dead Man Walking at Staatstheater Schwerin (Mecklenburg State Theater) in Schwerin, Germany for 8 performances.
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Staatstheater Schwerin (Mecklenburg State Theater) Type: Dead Man Walking  
Apr 26 - 27

Dead Man Walking at The Modern American Music Project in Ashville, North Carolina; Elise Quagliata (Sister Helen), Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek (Joseph DeRocher), Jane Bunnell (Mrs. DeRocher); David Troy Francis, music director & conductor; Francis Cullinan, director.
The Modern American Music Project Type: Dead Man Walking  
Mar 15 - 18

Dead Man Walking in a new production by Boston Opera Collaborative at the historic Somerville Theatre.
Boston Opera Collaborative Type: Dead Man Walking  
Mar 15 - 17

Dead Man Walking at Eugene Opera; Eugene, OR
Eugene Opera Type: Dead Man Walking  
Mar 9, 12, 14 & 16

Dead Man Walking at Opera de Montreal featuring Allyson McHardy (Sister Helen), Etienne Dupuis (Joseph DeRocher), Kimberly Barber (Joseph”s Mother), Chantale Nurse (Sister Rose); directed by Alain Gauthier; conducted by Wayne Marshall
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Opera de Montreal Type: Dead Man Walking  
Jan 11 - 13

Dead Man Walking at Fayetteville Opera, University of Arkansas with Lindsey Anderson (Sister Helen) and Daniel Scofield (Joseph DeRocher); Robert Mueller, conductor; Kyle Lang, director.
Fayetteville Opera Type: Dead Man Walking  
March 1, 4, 9, 18, 23

Dead Man Walking returns to the Dresden SemperOper
Dresden SemperOper Type: Dead Man Walking  
Feb 25, March 2, 4

Dead Man Walking at Tulsa Opera with Kirstin Chávez (Sister Helen) and Michael Mayes (Joseph De Rocher), directed by Johnathan Pape, conducted by Jerome Shannon.
Tulsa Opera Type: Dead Man Walking  


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1. A Live Recording from the Premiere of Dead Man Walking was released on the ERATO Disques label in 2001.

Funding for the original production of Dead Man Walking was provided by a generous and extraordinary gift from the late Mrs. Paul L. Wattis, CHASE Global Private Bank, The Carlyle Fund (Susan and Dennis Carlyle, co-founders), The Howard Gilman Foundation, Opera America, and The National Endowment for the Arts.


2. A second Live Recording of Dead Man Walking was released by Virgin Classics in 2012, recorded live at the Houston Grand Opera with Patrick Summers conducting Joyce DiDonato (Sister Helen), Philip Cutlip (Joseph), Frederica von Stade (Joseph’s mother), Measha Brueggergossman (Sister Rose), Susanne Mentzer (Jade), Cheryl Parrish (Kitty) with the HGO Opera Orchestra and Chorus.



An award-winning documentary titled And Then One Night: The Making of Dead Man Walking, was telecast internationally in 2002. It details the creation of the opera and is interwoven with the stories of murder victims’ families. Narrated by Angela Bassett, the feature includes behind-the-scenes footage of rehearsals, workshops, courtroom hearings, interviews with the creative team and cast of the opera, as well as parents of murder victims and the brother of a convicted murderer. The documentary was directed by Linda Schaller for KQED San Francisco.


THE GUARDIAN (London), Martin Kettle

Dead Man Walking makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theater since West Side Story more than 40 years ago. San Francisco, one of the great patron houses of contemporary opera, has a historic achievement on its hands.

Although Heggie’s opera is universal in its themes and moral scope, it is also aesthetically and culturally a distinctively American opera. By any conceivable standards, Dead Man Walking is a big opera emotionally.

That’s part of what one instantly respects about it.

… Heggie is an unabashed melodist. His music is rich and emotionally charged, and carries enormous atmospheric power. The orchestral writing is full of interest and subtlety. Heggie shows astonishing maturity for someone writing his first large-scale dramatic work. There is a sweep to this work which can only be called inspired. … Heggie’s achievement is simply immense.


It’s said that there are no second acts for new American operas. Well, here’s one exception: Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, which has already chalked up an impressive history since its debut in San Francisco two years ago . . . There are virtually no dead-spots in this fluidly constructed, surefooted, consistently lyrical score. Heggie’s strongest suit is his ability to find exactly the right musical contour for a line of text, penetrating to the heart of the emotional situation with expressive vocal writing that never fails to illuminate the characters. Everyone onstage has his or her distinct musical life, the dramatic pacing is impeccable, and the emotional climaxes arrive precisely on time. No wonder opera companies are lining up to stage the piece.

Effective operas do not write themselves, and this one features Terrence McNally’s craftily plotted libretto, which deals less with the politics of capital punishment than with personal issues of forgiveness, retribution and redemption . . . McNally understands very clearly how to write a workable text, especially when to step back to allow the music to take over and carry the moment.

Dead Man Walking does have precedents. Floyd’s Susannah, Menotti’s The Consul, Ward’s The Crucible and Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe were all met with initial popular, if not critical, acclaim and went on to establish themselves, and for the same reasons that are likely to keep Heggie’s maiden operatic effort in the repertory: compelling characters in a powerful theatrical situation, along with an accessible score by a skillful composer who knows how to press all the right buttons.

USA TODAY, Thomas May

The powerful hold Dead Man Walking exerted on its opening-night audience foreshadows a watershed moment in contemporary American opera.

Heggie’s music provides a remarkably cohesive vision. The quiet but worrying thread that begins the score also contains the key to his musical strategy. Its repetitive fretting generates a tension and restlessness that won’t relent until the opera’s chilling conclusion. Yet, he’s able to jump-cut effectively between extremes, from a folk-like kernel of gospel-flavored melody to brutal, acid-splashing chords that make West Side Story sound tame.


[Dead Man Walking], the maiden effort of composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally, must be reckoned something of a masterpiece — a gripping, enormously skillful marriage of words and music to tell a story of love, suffering and spiritual redemption. Add to that a San Francisco Opera production that sets a benchmark for excellence in every respect … The result was an evening unprecedented here for musical allure and theatrical savvy.

McNally’s splendid libretto — by turns plainspoken and eloquent, with wonderful splashes of wry humor to lighten the tone when it most needs it — creates the structural backbone of this wrenching drama. But it is Heggie’s expansive, humane and seamlessly ingratiating score that gives the work flesh and substance. In one scene after another, the music lets us feel and understand things deeply that the libretto can only hint at — and what else is opera about?

… the most remarkable aspect of the Dead Man score [is] how unerringly [Heggie] connects individual moments into a single consistent and expressive sound world … And all of these elements are fused into a score marked by gorgeous flights of lyrical breadth, punchy rhythmic byplay and orchestration that is full of surprises and idiosyncratic choices.


In its second performance at the San Francisco Opera on Tuesday night, Dead Man Walking proved that it has legs. With cast changes in the two major roles, the Death Row drama by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally proved every bit as gripping and surefooted as it had at Saturday’s premiere. Clearly, Dead Man, can support a range of artistic interpretations as fully as any established work in the operatic repertoire.

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The most compelling piece of musical theater I encountered this season was Jake Heggie’s and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking, which sold out most of nine performances in San Francisco — two more than were originally scheduled. Although this challenging first opera divided the international critical community, there seemed no doubt about its merit among most of the 30,000 people who attended. Audiences sat riveted in silence through the three-hour performance, then erupted into extended ovations after the final scene. Audiences were irresistibly drawn into the complex plight and progress of Sister Helen Prejean.

Since its unprecedented success in San Francisco, eight other companies, including three majors, have expressed interest in staging Dead Man Walking. …I regard Dead Man Walking as one of the triumphs of the retiring general director (Lotfi Mansouri).


Dead Man Walking, Jake Heggie’s opera, has legs. A year after its premiere by the San Francisco Opera, it has now received a second production by Opera Pacific, and Tuesday night the company easily sold out the house for the first of five performances at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Opera companies in the U.S. and abroad are lining up to mount either the original or this new production. It will take time, of course, to know just how long this opera’s legs will be, but short is not a safe bet. Thus far, it has brought out the best in everyone involved in its performances.

(April 18, 2002)

Dead Man Walking is, to its core, a crowd pleaser created by artists who are also crowd pleasers in all that they do. Add, in Heggie’s case, a singers’ pleaser, as well. Three hours after the curtain was raised, the crowd roared its approval in a substantial standing ovation.

Heggie, McNally and Mantello each in his own way knows exactly how to get the most out of a theatrical situation, and the performance was superb. McNally’s fluid libretto, utterly secure in its dramatic pacing and its ability to control the emotional climate at every microsecond, uses political issues mainly for local color as does, say, Tosca.

Heggie’s instinct is to flatter the voice, and he does so unfailingly. He sets words so well that we could have easily done without the projected titles. He also has the kind of feeling for the moment in theater that cannot be learned. One reason this opera held the crowd so well (and I can’t remember a time when I’ve heard fewer coughs in an American opera house) was that this was a compelling story simply told.

New operas may not be as plentiful as they once were, but a time traveler from early 17th century Italy to the War Memorial Opera House, for the premiere of Dead Man Walking, couldn’t help but be impressed by the appearance of a thriving art form.

(October 9, 2000)

NEW YORK NEWSDAY, Justin Davidson

In the United States, a successful new opera is a mythic beast: It seems plausible that such a thing might exist, but hardly anyone has ever laid eyes on one. Well, here’s a sighting: Dead Man Walking, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s lyric thriller of redemption . . . It is the sort of opera that makes people who have experienced it want to do so again and those who haven’t wish they had.


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. Heggie’s music is lush and the story gripping. There are influences of Gershwin and Britten in the music, which comes together with greater dramatic success than many other new works . . . What makes this work so impressive is that the immediate thought is to wonder how others would handle the roles. What kind of impact would Dolora Zajick have as Sister Helen? Or Lorraine Hunt Lieberson? Or Anne Sofie von Otter?

Heggie is at work on a new opera, based on Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair . . . there is much to look forward to.


[Dead Man Walking] appears to be a certifiable opera hit. Not only does this opera about a nontraditional subject break many of the rules of the genre, but it has done so without sacrificing appeal. This is opera as it was meant to be experienced…

The real triumph here goes to McNally for his taught, flowing text, and especially to Heggie, a largely unknown talent, for crafting a score with no slack musical or dramatic spots, entirely tonal but still dangerous in appeal and eminently singable.

It was composer Jake Heggie’s music and playwright Terrence McNally’s libretto that accounted for [Dead Man Walking‘s] uproarious success with the opening-night audience.

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OPERA NOW, Ashutosh Khandekar

This is a piece which ought to be embraced by the operatic community at large: it possesses a gritty popular appeal and is full of powerful musical and dramatic momentum. Above all, and this is rare in contemporary opera, the world premiere production packed a devastating emotional punch — it was an accomplished piece of theater.

It is to the great credit of librettist Terrence McNally and composer Jake Heggie that the opera never becomes a moral treatise on the rights and wrongs of the death penalty; nor does it sentimentalise or sensationalize its subjectmatter. Instead, Dead Man Walking engages its audience by exploring human motivations and frailties that are at work in a desperate situation — to love or to hate: that is the stark alternative proposed by the opera. McNally’s libretto is full of terse, tough-skinned vigor concealing a tender heart. Heggie’s music both inspires and colors the emotional force of the drama with its grainy orchestral writing and arching melodic lines which set the text beautifully for the singing voice. The combined power of words and music is a verismo tour de force that is not a million miles from Puccini.

I can only hope that audiences around the world are given a chance to experience how powerful new opera, written and performed in a thoroughly modern idiom, can be.

OPERA NEWS, Brian Kellow

From the start, the opera has an assured, confident feel, as if Heggie and McNally knew exactly what they wanted to do and did it … Heggie has composed a rich, unified score that never becomes overly schematic … his music has a gleaming sincerity and never overplays its hand. The orchestrations throughout are impressively crafted — Heggie’s use of winds and percussion is especially effective — and his ensemble writing is downright masterly. The finale of Act 1 is a stunning piece of work. McNally is to be credited for his theatrical savvy throughout, and for his ability to keep things moving.

Dead Man Walking may not break any new ground musically, but it may be the first work I’ve seen that convinced me that opera and naturalism can coexist peacefully. That’s no small achievement, and it’s one of the many reasons that Dead Man Walking deserves a long life.

CHICAGO TRIBUNE, Stephanie von Buchau

… Heggie may prove to be contemporary opera’s savior.

Heggie’s rhythmic profile is powerful and his orchestration strong without covering the singers. The opera is particularly accomplished in its many ensemble pieces. If the jail house chorus and the big, concerted finale sounded like the Benjamin Britten of Billy Budd and the War Requiem, those are sound models and Heggie’s part writing remains original.


Musically, Heggie’s Dead Man Walking is an impressive piece of work, especially given that it’s the composer’s first opera, that he is only 39, that he has worked mostly in smaller forms and that his subject matter presented almost insurmountable challenges.

… [Dead Man Walking] is indeed a success.

Dead Man Walking holds one’s attention over the course of its three hours. Musically, it is tonal but distinctive, strongest in its passages of muted anxiety and tenderness. The composer, best known for his songs, produces elegant musical pastiches (including two pop songs and a gospel tune) and he has passed the first test of a song composer working in opera: He has managed to work on a large scale, with a psychologically compelling mix of motivic economy and invention. He has a very good ear for a wide range of tonal possibilities, with passing stylistic references that suggest familiarity with earlier operas that live in the same claustrophobic world of fear and death.

CONTRA COSTA TIMES (California), Georgia Rowe

Dead Man Walking is a triumph. Heggie gives the story a handsome musical framework, with a sure sense of dramatic pacing, attractive writing for the orchestra, and a beautifully tonal vocal style that makes every voice sound golden. McNally has made a brilliantly concise libretto from Prejean’s book.

Heggie’s music incorporates bits of jazz, rockabilly and gospel, yet still manages to sound all of a piece. It’s the composer’s first full-length opera, and he creates a cohesive score with an impressively varied orchestral palette.

This is opera with a powerful emotional heart, telling a story for our times.

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Dead Man Walking succeeds remarkably as music theater. The score truly sings. [Sister Helen’s] journey, and ours, is what this story is all about. The opera effectively relates that story with cinematic fluidity, thanks to McNally’s taut synthesis of the book; Michael Yeargan’s inventive, often striking set design and Joe Mantello’s tightly choreographed direction.

Heggie, writing his first opera at 39, has delivered a score that moves with a decidedly contemporary beat (some of West Side Story’s rhythmic and harmonic kick resonates in the rich orchestration). There are telling arias, especially one for de Rocher’s mother, whose plea to the pardon board inspires Heggie to eloquent heights. And there are some vivid ensemble scenes. A sextet involving Helen, the parents of the victims and the killer’s mother has particular impact.

FINANCIAL TIMES (London), Richard Fairman

The opera that [Heggie] and his librettist, the playwright Terrence McNally,have fashioned from their material appeals directly to the heart … [Heggie’s] bitter-sweet music puts him in the line of American opera composers such as Menotti and Barber, which will not delight hardline critics, but he knows how to tell a story, how to hold the audience’s interest and rouse its emotions. There should be a far greater number of new operas filling our theaters and Heggie looks well placed to add to them.


… from the plaintive orchestral murmurings that introduce the opera’s harrowing first scene, to the profoundly moving ending, there’s no doubt that this is an opera by a composer of great musical heart. And that’s more than you can say about a lot of would-be opera composers of greater experience …

SACRAMENTO BEE, William Glackin

… so many people have done so many things right it’s hard to know where to start the praise. McNally’s libretto … is one of his finest achievements in a long career in the theater. The links to the source continue with Heggie’s score, which serves the story with utter fidelity at every turn, in many different ways that are among a good composer’s powers.

What looked to be a full house stood and cheered in a long ovation. This work will surely be done often elsewhere. If Broadway could still afford opera, it could go to Broadway.





really is the towering achievement many listeners heard in 2000. The uncompromising sweep and sensitivity of this performance, caught in splendid stereo, only reaffirm the work’s power … Heggie and McNally have created characters with such empathy and assurance that they seem to stand before the listener in all their naked humanity. Here is Frederica von Stade’s virtuoso turn as the convict’s mother, with her unlettered display of raw sorrow and guilt. Most ravishing of all, here is Susan Graham’s wise and vocally resplendent performance as Sister Helen, an irresistible melange of humor, tenderness, moral sinew and human frailty.  These qualities, embedded in Heggie’s resourceful and layered score, come through as vividly on disc as they did on stage, and conductor Patrick Summers shapes the proceedings with a masterly hand.

TIME OUT NEW YORK, Daniel Felsenfeld

Dead Man Walking is really the stuff of grand opera: It’s got overblown pathos, a fraught love story, a far-off location (the Deep South, distant to most of us) and a dramatic death at the end. Here, composer JakeHeggie and librettist Terrence McNally  offer a work that is sincere and moving without being manipulative. Heggie has an ear for melody and the specific voices for which he writes, and he has a spectacular sense of theater. McNally’s libretto is compact, quickly segueing between scenes, and in combination with Heggie’s tuneful, accessible music, it lends the opera a natural flow. The creators even handle the opening rape and double murder with surprising grace. Heggie’s range of styles runs effortlessly from Richard Strauss to Gershwin and Sondheim to Elvis without mocking or aping these masters, and the results are always in service of the drama. Susan Graham is perfect as Sister Helen Prejean, breathing life into the complex character, and John Packard is appropriately rough as the prisoner De Rocher. In a gorgeous, small-but-mighty appearance, Frederica von Stade melts the heart as the mother of the convicted, appealing for her son’s life. Their performances make Dead Man Walking a powerful, effective piece of theater.


Most remarkable are Heggie’s dramatic instincts. His word settings are never literal; instead they seem to bypass the conscious mind and make perfect intuitive sense. Even a throwaway line like ‘Excuse me’ has the right inflection and provides, in some small, unexplainable way, yet another view of the character’s soul … the opera stands outside of any preexisting tradition. Susan Graham achieves minor miracles of understatement. John Packard’s coal-black baritone couldn’t be better utilized, while Frederica von Stade is a touching figure of grief not only for the sake of her son, but for her otherwise tattered life. This recording is the calling card the opera needs to achieve the dissemination it deserves.


… Lyric Opera really should add Dead Man Walking to its repertory of American Classics. Erato’s superb original-cast recording conveys considerable impact as it unfolds in the music theater of one’s mind. Heggie’s music is equal to the emotionally intense subject, combining rich, appealing, singable lines for the able principal singers with a taut cinematic flow driven by McNally’s libretto. Dead Man Walking has been criticized for not taking any moral stance, but this seems hardly important when you listen to the recording, where the drama as conveyed through the music and the words is all that really matters — and it matters a lot.


This is indeed one of the best and most successful operas of the past half-century. The opera stands up very well on CD. The audio version, in fact, may be all the more effective to those who have seen the fictionalized film. Susan Graham creates a living human being of Sister Helen, most brilliant in her confrontations with the antihero Joseph de Rocher of John Packard or consoling the touching cameo figure of Frederica von Stade as the murderer’s mother. Some scenes emerge almost more graphically in sound alone — among them the Prelude that shows the crime and the reflective arias in which music expands on the action. Conductor Patrick Summers presides over all of this with consummate skill.


‘DEAD MAN’ SINGS ON CD. The opera seems even stronger than it did the night of its world premiere. That’s not always the case with contemporary operas, which tend to succeed on theatricality or a star turn more than on musical values. Playwright Terrence McNally’s taut libretto and Joe Mantello’s punchy direction had a lot to do with the world premiere’s success. So did full-throttle performances by Graham as Sister Helen, baritone John Packard as death row inmate Joseph De Rocher and mezzo Frederica von Stade as De Rocher’s long-suffering mother. Heggie’s music, conducted by Patrick Summers, still seems as lyrical and sincere as it did in the opera house. But its value is even clearer without such perfect visual embodiments of the characters as offered by the entire cast, and the eye-widening visual components. Listening to the CD, one can more fully grasp that Heggie’s music is finely detailed in form and orchestration and, best of all, is the emotional springboard for the action. This is an opera with real heart, and that heart comes across through the speakers even better than it did across the footlights.


It’s a powerful opera, beautifully performed. McNally’s scenes come alive, and Heggie’s score, which opens and closes with a spiritual, abounds in dramatic touches. His style is essentially lyrical, spiked with occasional dissonance. The two acts build to skillfully written ensembles.


The American opera event of 2000 was San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Jake Heggie’s ‘Dead Man Walking,’ based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her experience counseling murderers on death row. But for those of us who couldn’t afford the plane fare, fate has sent an olive branch. A terrific live recording of the San Francisco production has arrived. ‘Dead Man Walking’ offers a potent combination of artistic ambition and box-office punch. Heggie — who had composed some well-regarded art songs — writes in a sumptuous, neo-romantic style that singers adore and audiences can approach without fear. There is much to admire about Heggie’s score. The arias are tuneful and emotion-packed, especially Sister Helen’s evocative ‘This Journey to Christ’ and two set pieces for Mrs. De Rocher, the mother of the murderer, Joseph. The first is an impassioned plea for mercy before a pardon board; the second is a heartbreaking remembrance of sweet images of Joseph’s childhood. Moreover, Heggie crafts flowing ensembles and skillful transitional passages.  The cast is exemplary. The principals — Susan Graham (Sister Helen), John Packard (Joseph) and Frederica von Stade (Mrs. De Roche) — sing beautifully. The secondary singers impress, too, and conductor Patrick Summers leads an inspired orchestra. In the end, the recording whets the appetite for MOT’s upcoming production. The ultimate success of any opera is measured by whether it enters the repertory, and ‘Dead Man Walking’ is off to a promising start.

BARNES & NOBLE.COM, Andrew Farach-Colton

One has to look back to ‘West Side Story’ to find such an exciting and original piece of American musical theater. When the media stops insisting that Dead Man Walking is ‘about’ the death penalty, then perhaps Jake Heggie’s opera will finally be appreciated for what it is: a powerful and intimate lyric drama. Few composers today write so instinctively for the voice as Heggie does, and still fewer are able to write a heart-stopping ensemble like the Act 1 sextet ‘You don’t know what it’s like.’ And while he draws freely on American popular styles, like rock ‘n’ roll and gospel, the music’s most poignant moments are in a more personally lyrical idiom. Perhaps the greatest indication of the composer’s success is that he has created such memorable characters. The cast is terrific from top to bottom, and conductor Patrick Summers deserves considerable credit for inspiring such a dramatically incisive interpretation. The recorded sound is clear and richlydetailed.

GRAMOPHONE, Patrick O’Connor

A fine contemporary American opera superbly sung and full of atmosphere.



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