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Questioning along the journey

“I don’t see capital punishment as a peripheral issue about some criminals at the edge of society that people want to execute.

I see the death penalty connected to the three deepest wounds of our society:

racism, poverty, and violence.”

~ Sister Helen Prejean


With Sr. Helen Prejean in 2003 after premiering “The Deepest Desire” in New York, for which she wrote the beautiful lyrics

It’s hard to know where to begin a posting on the past two weeks of my life.  I knew walking into this production that it would be engrossing and all-consuming (as it was for me 8 years ago at New York City Opera), but just like life, the surprise element of human emotion can pack a good whallup.  I was sure of myself: “Sure, I know the powerful impact of this piece. I understand the depth of the involvement required. I’m good…” And yet, there was I was, shielding myself in the restroom after our first run of Act 2 (which concludes with the execution scene after the harrowing confession), completely overcome and shaking with emotion.  The lightning bolt of grief and horror whacked me right in the chest, and it was only after catching my breath that I realized that when I did this piece 8 years ago, I had never personally bore witness to a death before.  In the intervening years, I’ve lost loved ones, including waiting for that torturous flat line to come (“no wait, don’t come, please don’t ever come – oh no, actually please hurry up, his suffering is too great.”) for my father, and there was no escaping that rush of memory and emotion having “witnessed” it at the end of this rehearsal.

These two weeks have elicited immense discussions about what it means to truly forgive, about suffering, about dignity, about worthiness, about love and life.  And every single day I have collapsed in an exhausted heap on the couch, completely wrung out, and yet indescribably uplifted, for I’m keenly aware that this kind of journey is a gift ~ the kind of gift that is rare and profound.  I don’t want to miss a moment of it.

Our days began with those of us involved in the current scene sitting side by side in front of our astonishingly compassionate and brilliant director, Leonard Foglia and conductor, the adept and passionate Patrick Summers, and we began the discussion.

~ “What is this scene about?”

~ “Do you think he’s telling her the truth, here?”

~ “Don’t forget, the Sr. Helen we know TODAY is not the Sr. Helen of this piece – she hasn’t discovered these things yet.”

~ “The parents weren’t expecting to see the Mother of Joe walk in the courtroom – how to they feel, seeing a fellow Mother speak to plead for her son’s life?”

~ “But forgiveness brings true freedom – why can’t people see that?”

~ “But aren’t we then selecting only the people we deem are worthy and deserving of love, and if so, according to whose/which standards? Is that truly the “Christian” way?”

As you might begin to see, what we have all discovered is that this is not a piece about the death penalty.  It is a piece about human struggle, peoples’ individual spiritual journeys, love, compassion, conflict, forgiveness, anger, denial, connection.  It is one woman, Sr. Helen, stating, against all other voices of “reason” (“He’s a monster”, “He’s a murderer”) that “he is still a son of God”, and yet she cannot readily and easily walk with him ~ she must find a way to make her faith actually come alive and LIVE what she says she believes in.

In fact, I find it to be the most intimate of ANY opera or theatrical piece that I have ever participated in, because it hits all the topics that we shy away from ~ the ones we don’t dare actually address or examine, for the stakes somehow seem too overwhelming or too high.  The other beauty of this piece is that with all the opposing sides and all the opposing pain, each single character in the piece is right.  This is what Sr. Helen of today has realized and what she rails against: EVERYONE involved suffers.

I wish you all could meet the real Sr. Helen.  I can pretty much guarantee that you would feel an unexpected but ferocious fire ignite underneath you, for she is truly one of the THE most passionate people I have ever met, which of course, makes her story the perfect fodder for an opera!  If you’re at all interested in learning a bit more about her, this is a fascinating essay she wrote (sort of a condensed version of her first book, “Dead Man Walking) which will give you real insight into the world which I have been inhabiting over these past few weeks. It is fascinating and compelling reading, to be sure.

There is also a brief snippet of Sr. Helen actually in action which can serve to illustrate how easy Jake had it trying to find a singing line for her ~ she transmits music in every phrase!

The actual rehearsal process on a piece like this is overwhelming, to be certain, and I’ve found that I have to be a bit clinical about it.  I need to run a scene very coldly at first, simply to line up the huge musical hurdles and vocal challenges ~ almost as if I’m separating myself completely from the emotion of the scene.  I want my body to start learning what it is to experience the scene technically and without “emotional interference”, for lack of a better term.

The next time we run it, I abandon the vocal line (I’ll mark the lines, without paying attention to the sound I’m creating, often quite quietly) nearly speaking the words on pitch, but allowing myself to go completely and unabashedly into the drama and the emotion.  It’s important that I understand the emotional content of the scenes so I can access it later.  But here’s the thing: we need to sing these roles, and need to sing them in a way so that the AUDIENCE experiences the feelings ~ not US.  So I need to begin balancing the two extremes, almost as if I was at a water tap, controlling the hot (emotion) and cold (technique) valves, adjusting throughout the scene as necessary: if I feel myself getting overwhelmed to the point where I can feel the voice starting to waver, I can attempt to flood the cold valve with water and let up on the hot water, but if I feel in command of the voice, I can trust that the emotions will be there, but not overcome the singing, and I can heat it up a bit.

It’s different and surprising every single time, and so the concentration level is always running at the highest capacity possible (especially because I nearly never leave the stage) ready to negotiate any possible scenario, and yet the deeper I go into it, the more I feel it, and the simpler it all becomes. It’s a fascinating journey and one that I feel immeasurably fortunate to take. I think we all feel that way about this project, and I urge you to make the effort to come see this, if at all possible.

Here comes a pitch, however ~ we’re trying DESPERATELY to get this filmed, but I’m afraid the costs are immense. If anyone has connection to someone with a crazy amount of money just sitting around, and that person believes in the power of art to touch and affect real human beings, could you ask them to contact me so that I can tell them where to send the check? Thank you! ;-) Just one little (eh hem) check! Hey, it NEVER hurts to ask, right?

Anyway, thank you for letting me share a tiny bit of the experience I’ve been having with you.  It is truly the service of art, I believe, to probe and push and actually occasionally make us perfectly uncomfortable so that we might look a little be deeper into ourselves and perhaps, maybe (if we’re lucky!) grow a little bit…feel a bit more…expand our often narrow ways of thinking. It can often be a painful shedding process, but the pay-off is so very worth it. Of that I’m certain.

“When you accompany someone to the execution, as I have done three times as a spiritual advisor, everything becomes very crystallized, distilled, and stripped to the essentials. You are in this building in the middle of the night, and all these people are organized to kill this man. And the gospel comes to you as it never has before: Are you for compassion, or are you for violence? Are you for mercy, or are you for vengeance? Are you for love, or are you for hate? Are you for life, or are you for death?”

~Sister Helen Prejean

Dead Man Walking opens January 22 at the Houston Grand Opera. I can’t wait.

7 Comments

  1. Beverly said…

    I didn’t expect to be crying in my coffee at 9 am today, but I most certainly was. This touched my heart incredibly. How I wish I could see this opera! but the north of England is a bit far from Houston. Opera done well goes straight to the heart and this story goes straight to the heart. I wish it could reach more people. Thank you so much for posting this.

  2. How wonderful to return to this role: the Joyce we know TODAY isn’t the one who sang Sister Helen in New York eight years ago; your interpretation, already so profound, is sure to be richer now. I envy the audiences in Houston (and especially those who will have heard you both there and at City Opera), and I’m grateful to Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally for bringing Sister Helen’s story to the opera house. Dead Man Walking is a valuable reminder of opera’s relevance to the most important, ongoing debates of contemporary society — something that too many of us forget, too often.

  3. Scott Moore said…

    Your ultimate goal is to get this filmed. You either need the money to hire a production crew to do this or you need a crew to do this gratis.

    How much is “a crazy amount of money”? Also, what kind of recording are you trying to get? http://kickstarter.com is an alternate way of raising money for creative endeavors. Colleagues of mine have used the service with positive results.

    Is film the desired format or will 1080p HD suffice? I have never done anything more complicated than a 3 camera set up so I wouldn’t be able to help you directly. I may be able to find someone who can.

    Here’s hoping for a splendid run of Dead Man Walking in Houston.

    Scott

  4. Sibyl said…

    SO, I have no money, nor do I know anyone in the film industry or anything, for which I am sorry. What I do have is part of this opera in my head, a LOT, the part where the mothers sing about the last time they saw their children, the last things they said to them. I was the mother of a small child when I saw this in SF, and that resonated so strongly with me that I am still very, very careful what I say to my daughter as she leaves. That’s the power of Art. yes? Now all these years later, I wonder what I would take away with me? Wish I could go to Houston to find out!

  5. Squillo said…

    “It isn’t about the death penalty” — so true. Like any good work of drama it’s about a journey (or several); Sr. Helen’s journey to live fully in her faith that all “sons of God” are potentially worthy of forgiveness, AND a revision of what her perhaps naive views of what forgiveness means; Joe’s journey to (a halting) acceptance of his culpability and the realization that forgiveness is not predicated on a facile notion of remorse.

    Saw this in SF when it premiered, and am making the trek to Houston to see it again (and to be there for Flicka’s last opera performance–so bittersweet for me.) Glad it was recorded, and hope against hope it will be filmed.

  6. @@ said…

    Joyce, thank you for posting the video of Sister Helen. She says it so well – and her citation of Harris County certainly brings these performances right-on-home. See you there.
    Alison

  7. Raisa said…

    Joyce, thank you so much for this deep, heartfelt and most moving post. I read it twice and just like Beverly, had tears in my eyes.
    Unfortunately, I have never seen/heard this opera, but it sounds like an incredible journey through a labyrinth of morality and immorality, where the listener has to think and re-think, evaluate and re-evaluate, compare and relate.
    Thus, my New Year resolution: see DMW ASAP.
    Hope you have a wonderful run!

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