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An opera in two acts
Libretto by Terrence McNally after the book by Sister Helen Prejean
First performance: San Francisco; San Francisco Opera, October 7, 2000
Performed in English with supertitles above the stage
Based on the extraordinary book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, Dead Man Walking was Heggie's first opera, with a libretto by Terrence McNally. It premiered in 2000 at the San Francisco Opera, and has since been performed numerous times across the United States and throughout Europe. From its shocking beginning to its emotionally searing final scene, this opera changes everyone who encounters it. Its stunning score and intense story combine into a work that “must be reckoned something of a masterpiece – a gripping, enormously skillful marriage of words and music to tell a story of love, suffering and spiritual redemption” (San Francisco Chronicle).
*Parental advisory: This opera contains nudity, graphic violence, and explicit language, and is not recommended for anyone under age 18.
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Sister Helen Prejean, a young nun from Louisiana
Joseph De Rocher, a death row inmate at Angola State Penitentiary
Mrs. Patrick De Rocher, Joseph’s mother
Sister Rose, co-worker and close friend to Sister
George Benton, prison warden
Father Grenville, prison chaplain
Kitty Hart, mother of the murdered girl
Owen Hart, father of the murdered girl
Jade Boucher, mother of the murdered boy
Howard Boucher, father of the murdered boy
Motorcycle Cop, baritone
Older Brother, half-brother to Joseph
Younger Brother, half-brother to Joseph
Prison Guard 1
Prison Guard 2
Anthony De Rocher
Assistant Stage Director
Stage Combat Director
Children’s Chorus Preparation
Experience the power of Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in the excerpt from the Houston Grand Opera:
A teenage boy and girl are parked near a secluded lake at night, on a date. They have the radio on in their car and are making out to its music. Brothers Anthony and Joseph De Rocher emerge from the shadows and turn the radio off. They attack the teens, raping the girl and eventually shooting the boy. When the girl screams, Joseph stabs her until she is silent.
Scene 1: Hope House, run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille
Sister Helen, with the aid of some of the other sisters, is teaching the children a hymn. After the children leave, Sister Helen reveals to her colleagues that she has heard from Joseph De Rocher, a death row inmate she has been corresponding with, asking her to be his spiritual advisor and that she has decided to accept. The sisters warn Helen of the dangers, but she is firm.
Scene 2: The drive to the prison
Helen drives to Louisiana State Penitentiary and muses on her acceptance of De Rocher’s offer. She is stopped by a motorcycle policeman for speeding, but he lets her off with a warning.
Scene 3: Angola State Prison
Helen arrives at the prison and is met by Father Grenville, the prison chaplain.
Scene 4: Father Grenville’s office
Father Grenville criticizes Sister Helen’s choice to work with De Rocher, claiming that the man is unreachable. Helen responds that it is her duty to attempt to help him. She meets with the prison warden, George Benton, who asks many of the same questions and also criticizes her decision.
Scene 5: Death Row
Warden Benton and Sister Helen walk through Death Row to reach the visiting room. They’re accosted by the inmates, who in turn, shout profanities at Sister Helen and ask her to say prayers for them.
Scene 6: Death Row visiting room
Sister Helen and Joseph De Rocher meet. He asks Sister Helen to speak at the pardon board hearing on his behalf. He seems convinced that she will not return to help him; she assures him that such is not the case.
Scene 7: The pardon board hearing
Sister Helen is present with De Rocher’s mother, who pleads with the pardon board on his behalf. Owen Hart, father of the murdered girl, lashes out in anger.
Scene 8: The courthouse parking lot
The four parents of De Rocher’s victims speak angrily to his mother and to Sister Helen, who attempts to calm both sides in the debate. The parents accuse her of not understanding their pain and sorrow. Word comes from the pardon board: De Rocher has not been granted a pardon. Barring intercession from the governor, he is to die.
Scene 9: Death Row visiting room
De Rocher is convinced that Helen has abandoned him; she enters, late, and tells him that she has not and will not. He is angry and rejects all her suggestions to confess and make peace with his actions. The warden enters and tells Helen to leave.
Scene 10: The prison waiting room
Helen is attempting to find money to get food from the vending machine, having forgotten to eat. She begins to hear the voices in her head of the parents, the children at Hope House, Father Grenville, the motorcycle policeman, Warden Benton, and her colleagues, all telling her to stop attempting to help De Rocher. The warden enters to tell her that the governor has refused to act to save De Rocher and gives Helen some money for the machine. She faints.
Scene 1: Joseph De Rocher’s prison cell
A guard enters and tells De Rocher, who is doing pushups, that his execution date has been set for August 4. The guard leaves; Joseph contemplates his fate.
Scene 2: Sister Helen’s bedroom
Helen wakes up in terror from a nightmare, alarming Sister Rose, who begs her to stop working with De Rocher; Rose reminds her that she has not slept well since she began helping him. Helen says she cannot; the two women pray for the strength to forgive De Rocher.
Scene 3: Joseph’s cell
It is the evening of the date set for the execution. Joseph and Sister Helen talk, discovering a shared love for Elvis. For the first time, Joseph admits that he is afraid. Sister Helen reassures him, urging him to confess and make peace with what he has done; again he refuses. The warden enters and informs them that Mrs. De Rocher is there to see him.
Scene 4: The visiting room
Mrs. De Rocher and her two younger sons are there. Joseph visits with them and attempts to apologize; she will have none of it, preferring to believe to the end that he is innocent. She asks Helen to take a last picture of her family together. The guards lead Joseph away; she looks after him, near tears, eventually losing control. She thanks Helen for all that she has done.
Scene 5: Outside the Death House
Helen speaks with the victims’ parents. One of them, Owen Hart, takes her aside and confesses that he is less sure of what he wants now than he was; he tells her that he and his wife have separated due to the stress they have felt. Helen attempts to console him; they agree to part as "Fellow victims of Joseph De Rocher."
Scenes 6/7: Joseph’s holding cell
Helen and De Rocher converse for one last time; once again she attempts to get him to confess to the murders. This time something in him snaps; he breaks down and tells her the entire story. He expects Helen to hate him; instead, she says she forgives him and that she will be “the face of love” for him. He thanks her. Father Grenville enters and begins the final preparations for the execution.
Scene 8: March to the execution chamber/The execution chamber
Guards, inmates, the warden, the parents, the chaplain, and protesters assembled outside the prison sing the Lord’s Prayer as Sister Helen reads a passage from the book of Isaiah. They approach the death chamber, and Helen is separated from De Rocher. The warden asks if he has any last words; he says he does and asks forgiveness from the parents of the murdered teenagers. The warden gives the nod, and the execution proceeds. De Rocher dies thanking Helen for her love. The opera ends as Sister Helen repeats her hymn.