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Union Avenue Opera opens its doors to 'Dead Man Walking'

In Performing Arts

8:30 pm on Sun, 08.14.11

Great drama - whether opera, stage or movie - can powerfully focus its audience and encourage them to chew on ideas long after the final bows. Great drama may change hearts and minds.

Even so, it is pretty rare that any drama is so compelling that, after more than two full weeks of rehearsals, actors and staff still react with tears running down their cheeks.

That's been happening as Union Avenue Opera rehearses "Dead Man Walking."

The opera in English by two Americans opens Friday at Union Avenue Church, 733 N. Union Blvd. It runs two weekends, closing the UAO summer season. A free talk by the subject of the opera, Sister Helen Prejean, will be given at the church Thursday evening.

Photo copyright by Ron Lindesy
Elise Quagliata as Sister Helen and Jordan Shanahan as Joseph De Rocher

The 2000 opera by composer Jake Heggie and four-time Tony-award-winning playwright Terrence McNally is based on the 1993 book by Sister Helen Prejean, (pronounced Pray-Jahhn) a Catholic sister of St. Joseph. It is a fictionalized account of her spiritual "accompaniment" of a man to his execution. In her book, he's a composite of two death row inmates at Louisiana's Angola penitentiary in the 1980s: Elmo Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie. A key part of the story is that the nun also counseled the families of the murderer and the victims. In the book, the 1995 movie and the opera, the names are fictitious, except for Prejean's. The man facing the death penalty in the opera is called Joseph De Rocher.

"We all have cried," said Scott Schoonover, the production's conductor and Union Avenue Opera company founder and artistic director.

Stage director Tim Ocel said, "Night and day, I've never been personally caught up emotionally in such a work like this before. And never so exhausted by preparing it." Ocel's never seen a cast so involved in the story emotionally, either.

Ocel gets excited when the talks about the way the opera tells the story.

Part of the opera's strength, he said, is not taking sides and telling the audience whether Prejean, who seeks appeals to move De Rocher from death row to life imprisonment, is right, or whether the families of his murdered victims are right in calling for his death.

"You decide what justice means," said Ocel. "This is a very smart, smart piece."

Ocel, the proudly St. Louis-based director with a national reputation said, "It's about right versus right, like Greek tragedy. 'Antigone,' for example, where both sides are right. Should 'Antigone' bury her brother's (body) or should she save her own life? 'Dead Man Walking' is very humanistic opera like that."

Heggie is real about the characters' patterns of thought, Ocel said. He allows lyrics time to be sung, time to be heard, time for the other characters absorb the ideas and then react. "He is not like Verdi, for example, where the melody is always more important," Ocel said

Early in the story, a nun working at New Orleans Public Housing after-school program for children mulls over a letter from her pen pal on death row. Her order had suggested, as part of its 1980s community outreach efforts, that she write to a prisoner and provide spiritual support. De Rocher writes that he wants to see the nun face-to-face and help him. Sister Rose, a co-worker, tries to dissuade Prejean from going to see him, but Prejean insist she must because she is needed and sings: "All of us are God's children, Rose, even him."

Ocel is working with sound so no word is lost or muffled. (Words will also be projected on two screens above the stage.)

"Dead Man Walking" is McNally's first opera. But he won a Tony for "Master Class" about opera diva Maria Callas and wrote the book and lyrics for the 1992 Broadway musical "Ragtime," based E.L. Doctorow's novel and the 1997 Broadway musical "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

"Dead Man Walking" was also composer Heggie's first opera. Ocel credits him for giving great respect to McNally's words.

The set will add to the intensity, Schoonover said. Designer Patrick Huber places death row inmates high above the main stage rattling their bars from the church's side balconies. This chorus of scorn may give surround sound new meaning.

A Louisiana Music Cocktail

Schoonover and many of the cast find the score modern but very accessible, with a couple of tunes that may haunt afterward. They are haunting the cast.

It's a Louisiana cocktail of sound. This listener could imagine a classically trained musician walking through New Orleans' spring Jazz Fest, picking up airs and inspiration from musicians in the Blues tent, Gospel tent, some of its Jazz tents and its huge rock and roll stages.

"It's just fabulous music that makes the drama even more riveting," said Nancy Mayo, the piano accompanist who subbed for an orchestra until closer to the opening.

"There a little bit of blues, here," she said flipping the pages of her thick piano score. "Never for long, but then a bit here, some rock and roll here. And real bits of Elvis' music back here. Not for long."

Elvis is not in the building but is a very off-stage character in the story because DeRocher and Prejean's start really communicating when both find they are Presley fans.

None of this is to say that it's a blues or a rock-and-roll opera. In the classical opera tradition, Heggie has given major characters their own signature music - their leitmotivs. Sister Helen's signature musical phrase is a gospel song with the line "He will gather us around." It's first heard when she teaches it to children in the after-school program. De Rocher's leitmotiv is violent and harsh, Mayo said pointing to the score. It is first heard the night of the rape and murders.

At an evening rehearsal, we witnessed tears coming to mezzo-soprano Elise Quagliata of New York as she sang the role of Sister Helen Prejean.

"I've been working on it for months with my voice teacher and now in rehearsal and I can't get it out of my head," she said during a rehearsal break. "I hear all the voices asking for Helen's help. I do dream about it."

Cast 'dead Man Walking'

Joseph De Rocher - Jordon Shanahan

Sister Helen Prejean - Elise Quagliata

Sister Rose - Marlissa Hudson

Sister Lilianne - Victoria Carmichael

Mrs. Charlton - Merry Keller

A motorcycle cop - Philip Touchette

Father Grenville - Clark Sturdevant

Warden George Bennett - Robert Reed

Mrs. Du Rocher - Debra Hillabrand

Owen Hart - David Dillard

Kitty Hart - Stephanie Tennill

Conductor - Scott Schoonover

Stage director -Tim Ocel

Set Designer Patrick Huber

Costume Designer -Teresa Doggett

Lighting designer - Kaitlyn Breen

Quagliata has discussed the role with composer Jake Heggie in depth, she said. She got to know him when she sang Heggie's song cycle "The Deepest Desire" based on poems by Sister Prejean at Lincoln Center. She has sung "Deepest Desire" cycle several other venues now and calls Heggie a friend.

"Jake told me that Union Avenue was doing this and told me to audition," Quagliata said. "This role is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I love it. I hope to do it again. Many times."

This modern opera's great drama is spelled by moments of ordinary everyday life. In one, the nun has skipped meals to make the three-hour drive to the penitentiary to visit De Rocher and find herself with no change to buy a snack from the vending machine. In anther scene, a police officer stops her for speeding. And in another, De Rocher's mother can't get her homemade cookies to her son for his last meal.

In the scene when the nun is looking for change, she thinks about all those who have asked her for help, children and adults. They are in her head but about 30 singers -- all defined characters not a typical chorus -- are on stage singing their demands for her help.

"Hearing those calling for help seven times a day in rehearsal is so intense," Quagliata said. "I can't imagine what she who had to (deal) with them all must have felt."

Quagliata is eager to meet Prejean, not just because of the opera but also as the force behind the poems in Heggie's song cycle.

"This is an opera about our time. It's very emotional to do. Exhausting for me. But Sister Helen lived it. She's amazing, she must be such a strong woman."

A Risk for Uao

Schoonover said that he and his board knnow it's a risk for the company to do this opera; many opera regulars avoid contemporary music - basically any opera written after the time of Puccini, who died in the 1920s. The only other opera UAO has presented by a living composer was in 1999 when it did Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah." By June, Schoonover knew that some former UAO subscribers were only buying tickets to the season's first two opera skipping "Dead Man Walking." He said there's hope that theater lovers who have never been to UAO might attend. "Dead Man Walking" may be a perfect first opera for theater goers.

It says a lot about the loyalty and passion of St. Louis opera lovers that its two finest opera companies, Opera Theatre of St. Louis and Union Avenue Opera, trust their audiences' intellectual curiosity and passion for music in presenting two compelling contemporary American operas on searing topics this summer in a down economy. Opera Theatre presented John Adams' "The Death of Klinghoffer" about the tragic hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro, and now UAO is presenting "Dead Man Walking."

Uao's Summer 2012

The two weekends of "Dead Man Walking" close UAO's summer season, Next July, Union Avenue Opera will perform Handel's "Acis and Galatea," Verdi's "Un Ballo in Maschera" and the company's first Wagner opera, an abridged version of "Das Rheingold." The version it will use has been adapted to run less than three hours by author Jonathan Dove. In December the company will present its annual holiday production of Menotti's "Amahl and the Night Visitors."

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer who has written extensively on opera. To reach her, contact Beacon features and commentary editor Donna Korando.

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