“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.