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Meghan J. ClarkOctober 03, 2023
Joyce DiDonato and Ryan McKinny in “Dead Man Walking” (The Metropolitan Opera)

An opera about a Catholic nun’s ministry with death row inmates is the most performed opera in the 21st century. There is something deeply implausible and beautiful about this fact. And despite its demonstrated success, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s “Dead Man Walking” remained a provocative and controversial choice to open the Metropolitan Opera’s 2023-2024 season. As I walked out of the theater on opening night, I found myself overcome by the universal redemptive hope at the core of the opera.

In 1982, Sister Helen Prejean agreed to be a pen pal to a death row inmate in Angola Prison, Louisiana’s state penitentiary. She readily admits she had no idea what she was getting herself into. At her appearance as part of the Guggenheim’s “Works & Process” performing arts series, I laughed as Sister Helen described this seemingly innocuous request as “sneaky Jesus” inviting her on this journey that would become her life’s work. In 1993, her memoir Dead Man Walking launched her on the national stage and inspired the 1995 Oscar-winning movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

As I walked out of the theater on opening night, I found myself overcome by the universal redemptive hope at the core of the opera.

The book and movie quickly became staples in Catholic colleges, high schools and confirmation classes, selling over 800,000 copies. In 2000, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s opera adaptation premiered at the San Francisco Opera, the first of 75 productions globally. Its latest version, at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, stars Joyce DiDonato and Ryan McKinny.

“Dead Man Walking” is a deeply human story about truth, forgiveness and the possibility of redemption. It is a journey into which everyone—from the singers to the audience—is invited. Ms. DiDonato goes so far as to call it “the greatest love story in the opera world.”

Both Ms. DiDonato and Mr. McKinny have spoken about how being part of “Dead Man Walking” has transformed them. The Metropolitan Opera’s production is the fourth time Ms. DiDonato is singing Sister Helen, and the two have become friends. Ms. DiDonato herself engages in prison ministry of her own through prison music programs. A sung version of the opera will be performed in New York State’s Sing Sing prison with inmates from the music program as the chorus. Meanwhile, Mr. McKinney became a pen pal to a death row inmate in Texas, who sadly committed suicide after the Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal last year.

“Dead Man Walking” never downplays or explains away the violent rape and murder Joseph De Rocher committed. Sister Helen’s mission throughout the opera is to get Joseph to admit his guilt. The opera’s questions are not ones about guilt or innocence, explained composer Jake Heggie at Fordham University; the journey of the opera “is how we as a community respond.” The staging demands that we feel our anger, rage and horror at the violent deaths of De Rocher’s two teenage victims, and yet, it also demands we grapple with the humanity of Joseph De Rocher.

A core principle of Christianity, invoked by both Sister Helen and Ms. DiDonato, is that “either forgiveness is available to all of us or none of us.” Listening to them in conversation, I was reminded of Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s contention that Christianity means there is no such thing as “unforgivable” and of Pope Francis’ reminder that “not even a murderer loses his personal dignity” in “Fratelli Tutti.”

“I will be the face of love for you, I will be the face of Christ for you,” says Sister Helen to Joseph just before his execution.

I have lately found myself deeply struggling after a visit to Auschwitz. Overcome by the evil I witnessed at the camp, I have been praying a lot about the nature of truth and redemption. During the opera, I found myself connecting personally to the opera as another sister in her community, Sister Rose, challenges Sister Helen: “Have you forgiven him?” Believing that God forgives, we can perhaps hide behind Christ’s forgiveness, avoiding just how difficult personal forgiveness really is.

As the opera moved toward Joseph De Rocher’s execution, as Sister Helen imploringly sings “The truth will set you free,” I found myself praying that he would tell the truth and open himself to the possibility of forgiveness. I found myself desperately wanting him to be saved. And there, I was overcome by that sense of redemptive hope. (As Ms. DiDonato herself noted, “Opera turns up the temperature on every emotion.”)

In its framing, the opera also raises deeper and broader questions about how as a society we respond to violence on a human level. Everyone is suffering. No one’s human dignity is being respected, no one is being cared for sufficiently.

At the heart of the first act, we are invited into Joseph De Rocher’s final parole hearing in which he appeals for commutation of his sentence. In the scene, we see Sister Helen struggle to accompany Joseph’s mother in her grief, attempt to reach out to the parents of the victims and, once again, grapple with the violent death of two innocent teenagers. She struggles to care for everyone in the scene. The audience, too, is asked: How do we care for all who are wounded by violence?

In the powerful sextet, Ms. De Rocher reminds us that her son is still a human being and that more death will not balance the scales. The victims’ parents lament the pain of recollecting their last encounters with their children. “You don’t know what it’s like,” they angrily and sorrowfully challenge Sister Helen.

The opera powerfully draws out the depths of the suffering detailed in the original book. For example, Sister Helen humbly acknowledges her failure to reach out to the families of victims early in her ministry. Toward the end of her book, she attends a support group for victims’ families and realizes just how deeply they feel abandoned by the system too. Elizabeth, whose daughter, Faith, was murdered, notes, “When someone’s killed, they figure the one killed is the victim, not you, and you’re pushed to the sidelines.”

Like “Dead Man Walking,” the death penalty is never just about capital punishment, but always about how we respond to violence as a community. During several scenes in “Dead Man Walking,” I noticed how perfectly it works as a companion for reflecting on “Fratelli Tutti.” The truth, Pope Francis wrote in that encyclical, “is an inseparable companion to justice and mercy. All three together are essential to building peace.” Throughout her sessions with Joseph, Sister Helen implores him to tell the truth and accept responsibility for his actions. The truth is necessary for Joseph’s redemption. It is also the only thing that might bring the families some peace.

“I will be the face of love for you, I will be the face of Christ for you,” says Sister Helen to Joseph just before his execution.

Joyce DiDonato may be right: This opera is a love story.

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