Credit: Scott Suchman

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The unusual timeliness of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking was underscored last week when Albert Woodfox of the Angola 3 was released from the same Louisiana prison in which Heggie’s opera (and Sister Helen Prejean’s book on which it was based) was set; Woodfox had been held in solitary confinement for more than four decades for the killing of a correctional officer, which he long denied. 

It’s rare for contemporary opera to achieve the level of relevance and success that Dead Man Walking has. Just 17 years old, it’s been performed by companies around the globe and is well on its way to an established spot in the opera repertory. Much of its international popularity is no doubt due to a revulsion with what many other countries regard as a barbaric U.S. relic, the death penalty. Heggie is a smart composer: good enough to write pleasing if not envelope-pushing music, and also savvy enough to know what will give his work lasting appeal. And for source material, the inhumanity of the U.S. prison system is a theme that is guaranteed never to go out of date. 

Make no mistake: Heggie’s opera is excellent, a modern-day tragedy that balances its gut-wrenching moments with occasional levity, thanks in large part to Terrence McNally’s engaging libretto. It’s accessible to new opera audiences and reassuring to old ones, even if that means its musical touchstones—Gershwin, Bernsteinand Barber—are a little anachronistic for an opera set in 1980s Louisiana (Heggie does throw in some closer-to-home motifs drawn from gospel, blues, and Elvis). And it’s a familiar story, with the opera coming out just five years after the Tim Robbins film of the same name. Though Heggie and McNally expressed inspiration from the book, not movie, the latter’s impact is obvious, with the opera borrowing a composite character based on two convicted murderers in Prejean’s book: Sean Penn’s Matthew Poncelet, here called Joseph De Rocher 

In this telling, the character’s guilt is clear from the beginning, given the prologue that brutally depicts the crime for which he is convicted: a rape and double murder of a teenage couple. The scene is gratuitously graphicand arguably unnecessary: a later scene in which the parents of the victims pour out their anguish at the nun, leaving her speechless, is devastating by itself. One could argue this production actually dialed it back—the original libretto calls for nudity—but it leaves the impression of a shock value scene designed to signal “this is a bold new opera!” to fuddy-duddy audiences. 

But what gives the opera heft isn’t the crime or the inevitable ending, but the two principals, Sister Prejean and De Rocher, both the relationship between the two and their own personal evolutions. And this production boasts two capable principals, mezzo Kate Lindsey as Prejean and baritone Michael Mayes as De Rocher, with the bonus of a stunning third who dominates in the too few scenes she’s in: mezzo Susan Graham as De Rocher’s mother, plagued by guilt, denial, and helplessness in the face of her son’s crime and execution. 

Francesca Zambello’s production for the Washington National Opera is cinematic, with booming conducting by WNO newbie Michael Christie, and stripped down sets but plenty of movement and scene chewing. Appropriately, the acting is first rate, down to the class-specific accents (Prejean’s subdued southern liltDe Rocher’s thick Cajun drawl). At Saturday’s opening, Lindsey started out meekly in the opening ensemble but grows into her role, stubbornly devout and admittedly in over her head, with a hint of mischief in her voice. Mayes is initially unsympathetic, all jailhouse posturing, and his baritone softens as his character’s vulnerability shows. 

The story tracks Prejean’s struggles with her skeptical order and sense of vocational duty as she goes from pen pal to spiritual adviser to the condemned man, facing the condescension of the prison chaplain, vitriol of the victims’ families, and refusal of De Rocher to come to terms with his crime. There are no surprises in the story, yet Prejean and De Rocher never fail to hold your attention. If the characters are drawn in shades of gray, the opera’s attitude toward the death penalty is far from nuanced, with the final scene depicting in silence De Rocher’s execution by lethal injection as a crucifix. 

The opera’s politics would explain why, of WNO’s two most prominent’s two most prominent regular audience members, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was there but Newt Gingrich was an apparent no show. Yet far from agitprop, Dead Man Walking is a much more traditional opera than it appears. Opera historians love to remind us that opera was originally a popular genre, appealing to regular audiences, drawing on existing pop culture, and, yes, appealing to base appetites for sex and violence. And when it comes to violence against women, sexual or otherwise, this too is a proud opera tradition, whether femicide (Carmen), attempted rape (The Marriage of Figaro), statutory rape (Madama Butterfly), or just plain rape (The Rape of Lucretia). At least Heggie’s opera was never intended to titillate. He knows what audiences like—not just regular opera audiences but American audiences generally. His habit of writing operas based on familiar non-operatic source material has served him well: the last Heggie opera WNO did was the terrific Moby-Dick, and his latest is an opera version of It’s a Wonderful Life. Opera doesn’t have to be fancy, and if it goes back to middlebrow territory, it’s probably a good thing for the genre. 

Dead Man Walking continues through March 11 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. $35-$300.