The San Francisco Opera Company has commissioned composer Jake Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally to create an opera based on Sister Helen Prejean's award-winning book about a convicted murderer, Dead Man Walking, for the troupe's 2000-01 season. The announcement was made Mar. 12 by the company's general director, Lotfi Mansouri.
The opera is to be directed by Colin Graham and conducted by Patrick Summers. Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is to sing the principal role of the inmate's mother (a role that in the recent film adaptation of the book was a plum supporting part played by the noted stage actress Roberta Maxwell).
Dead Man Walking is part of San Francisco Opera's "Pacific Visions" program to replenish the opera repertoire through new commssions. To date the commissioned works include The Dangerous Liaisons, by Conrad Susa and Philip Littell (which can be seen in March 1998 at the Washington [D.C] Opera); Harvey Milk, by Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie; and A Streetcar Named Desire, with music by Andre Previn and a libretto by Dangerous Liaisons' Littell, which receives its world premiere at San Francisco Opera Sept. 19, 1998.
Dead Man Walking composer Heggie, 36, an up-and-comer in classical music circles who was a winner of the G. Schirmer National Art Song Competition in 1995, has written works for leading American singers including Renee Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Von Stade, Brian Asawa and Jennifer Larmore (Larmore's recent CD, "My Native Land," features five Heggie songs).
McNally, who wrote the Tony Award-winning plays Master Class and Love! Valour! Compassion! also penned the books for the musical Kiss of the Spider Woman (for which he received another Tony Award) and for the new Broadway hit Ragtime. McNally's works in progress include a new book for the musical Pal Joey; a play, Corpus Christie, for the Manhattan Theatre Club; and a book for a new musical version of The Visit, which is to star Angela Lansbury. "When Terrence suggested Dead Man Walking as subject matter, every hair on my body stood up -- it was an immediate visceral reaction," said Heggie in a recent intervew. "Dead Man Walking is the perfect story for an opera: It is a dramatic and very human tale of redemption and the power of love. It is topical for today -- a very American story that can be understood universally."
--By Rebecca Paller