Morgan Smith & Emily Fons in Dead Man Walking. Photo courtesy KY Opera.

Dead Man Walking

Music by Jake Heggie, Libretto by Terrence McNally
Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean
Directed by Ellen Douglas Schlaefer

Review by Kathi E.B. Ellis

Entire contents copyright © 2017 Kathi E. B. Ellis. All rights reserved.


Kentucky Opera brings their premiere of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking to Louisville audiences this week. And composer Heggie was also in town to celebrate this production, one of more than 60 mounted of this work around the world since its 2000 premiere.

Heggie’s score is rich and complex, with allusions to a wide range of American musical history, helping to set place – the Blues of the American South – as well as action – with nods to hymns, popular music and even Happy Birthday. Whether he is allowing for silence, the spoken word, or popular music on the radio, Heggie’s overall vision for this powerful retelling of Sister Helen Prejean’s journey as Spiritual Advisor to dead row inmate Joseph de Rocher continually challenges the audience to accept that any and all of these choices are an organic part of opera.

Under the direction of Ellen Douglas Schlaefer, who is an experienced opera and theatre director, the whole company embodies not only the musical world of their characters but also the psychological and emotional authenticity of each character so that the audience can be fully engaged. There were many moments during the opening performance when the auditorium was brought to absolute stillness by the rawness of the character’s experiences.

Dead Man Walking was originally Sister Prejean’s retelling of her journey as a book. Then a major Hollywood movie, which was adapted into a stage play. And, then, Heggie’s operatic version with libretto by acclaimed playwright Terrence McNally. The opera seems more attuned to the original book than is the play, with many lines being lifted from Prejean’s autobiographical telling of her story.

At the heart of this story is, of course, Sister Helen Prejean. Emily Fons makes her Kentucky Opera debut in this role, bringing Prejean’s humor, outspokenness and deep faith to light. Fons’ warm voice foregrounds Prejean’s compassion, while still showing the doubts she has about undertaking this journey and, ultimately, the strength of her convictions to see her commitment through. Morgan Smith, returning to Kentucky Opera and to this role, is a compelling Joseph De Rocher. His physical size alone is intimidating. Smith’s confident baritone is a good vehicle for De Rocher’s arrogance and braggadocio in the early parts of the work. Heggie writes some of his most lyrical phrases for De Rocher, and Smith is equally potent in those moments, opening up, finally, to the confession that Prejean has sought all along. The relationship between these two doesn’t have quite enough time to explore their early disconnects, but these two performers give full due to those last hours on Death Row.

For me, the emotional core of this work lies in the role of Mrs. Patrick De Rocher as personified by Phyllis Pancella. Whether speaking or singing, Pancella holds the stage and audience in thrall. Her love for Joe, her denial of his crime, and the strength she tries to give all three sons comprised the most compelling moments of the evening. Pancella’s vocal flexibility and range fully expressed Mrs. De Rocher’s tragedy. Karen Slack returns to the role of Sister Rose with aplomb, her assurance with the musical stylings of this role evident in her enjoyment of performing.

The Shreveport Opera’s flexible unit set helped the flow of the performance and set the tone for both the overwhelming poverty and also the looming institution of Angola Penitentiary. Lighting designer Julie Duro ably added to this atmosphere with well-utilized patterns and colors at appropriate times, immediately after the family photo being one such, poignant moment. Lorraine Venberg’s costumes clearly took us back to the 1980’s.

The success, for me, of this production is the seamless blending of operatic and theatrical conventions and, I infer, processes which allow the artists fully to inhabit a character, which the music then lifts up to the epic realm in which stories of life and death, love, and hate have existed in opera for centuries. As Arthur Miller demonstrated in his essay, “Tragedy and the Common Man”, in today’s world we do not have to look only to characters of high estate to tell stories that fully engage an audience in the essence of humanity. Heggie and McNally demonstrate this to the fullest extent.

Dead Man Walking

October 27 @ 8:00pm
October 29 @ 2:00pm

Kentucky Opera
W.L. Lyons Brown Theatre
315 West Broadway
Louisville, KY 40202


Kathi E.B. Ellis is an associate member of the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society and a member of Lincoln Center and DirectorsLabChicago. She has attended the La MaMa Directing Symposium in Umbria, Italy and is featured in Southern Artisty, an online registry of outstanding southern artists. Her directing work has been recognized with nominations for South Florida theatre’s Carbonell Award.  Locally, Kathi is a member of Looking for Lilith Theatre Company, a founding principal of StageLab theatre training studio, and part of ShoeString Productions, an informal producing collective. She has written book reviews and articles for Southern Theatre, the quarterly publication of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, and was a contributing writer for JCPS’ textbook for the 11th grade Arts and Humanities survey course and for YouthArts Tapestry, a Kentucky Arts Council publication.