When Sister Helen Prejean first published Dead Man Walking, her 1993 memoir and polemic against the death penalty, popular support for capital punishment was at an all-time high. According to Gallup, nearly 80 percent of those surveyed supported execution as a redress for murder. But that near consensus (like so much conventional wisdom in America) has unraveled in the ensuing three decades. Now only 55 percent of respondents support the death penalty, with 42 percent opposed. Is this the result of Sister Helen’s advocacy? Are more people aware of the cruelty of even our most “humane” methods of execution? Or are more people blissfully insulated from the kind of violence that might merit a death sentence, affording them the privilege of a bleeding heart?
The opera Dead Man Walking leaves us to stew in those questions, which have returned to my mind with the same frequency as “He Will Gather Us Around,” Sister Helen’s indelible anthem. The accessible elegance of the music (by Jake Heggie) and the insistence of the dramatic questions it underscores (libretto by Terrence McNally) are two of the reasons Dead Man Walking has become one of the most-produced modern operas since its world premiere with San Francisco Opera in 2000. As far as operas go, it is a taut, unrelentingly dramatic machine and a testament to the late playwright’s skill. It has finally made its Metropolitan Opera debut, opening the company’s 2023-24 season with a powerful new production from director Ivo van Hove that is guaranteed to provoke doubt, no matter where you find yourself on this issue.
Sister Helen (Joyce DiDonato) knows her position — the same as Jesus Christ and the Catholic Church, firmly against the death penalty. When death row inmate Joseph De Rocher (Ryan McKinny) writes to ask her to be his spiritual adviser, she accepts, driving up to the Louisiana State Penitentiary (better known as “Angola”) to meet with him. Joseph shows no remorse for raping and murdering a woman who spurned his advances. He won’t even admit he did it, complaining bitterly that his brother got life in prison for killing the man his victim was with at the time (he blames this disparity on the quality of their respective lawyers). We wonder if he cynically thinks having a nun in his corner might score him a commutation. Meanwhile, the parents of the victims wonder why Sister Helen has rushed to comfort the killer, but not them.
This confrontation takes place in a thrilling quartet in which the four grieving and aggrieved parents (Rod Gilfry, Krysty Swann, Wendy Bryn Harmer, and Chauncey Packer) circle Sister Helen, unloading their hurt and frustration on her. When high-minded idealism collides with real human suffering, it’s hard not to sympathize with the latter.
Of course, it is impossible to ignore the suffering of Joseph’s mother, whose heartfelt plea before the pardon commission is given vocal and emotional heft in a haunting performance by Susan Graham (a veteran of this opera, having originated the role of Sister Helen in San Francisco).
In a performance that conveys both unshakable conviction and intense fear, DiDonato proves to be the ideal Sister Helen. Her top notes waft over the audience, lighter than air and more delicate than gossamer — yet like Sister Helen’s faith, they never break.
As Joseph, McKinny enacts a much more profound transformation. When we meet him, he is prickly, defensive, and mean. McKinny embodies Joseph’s obstinance (the only thing the prison cannot take away from him) through his muscular baritone, a voice that threatens to leap into the audience and slap you around. But the real brilliance of McKinny’s performance is seeing that tough-guy veneer slowly crack over the course of three hours. The shell fully removed, we’re left with a human being, trembling and frightened before death.
Van Hove and projection designer Christopher Ash show this transformation with a series of close-ups, which are projected on a large cube that hangs over Jan Versweyveld’s austere, institutional-gray set. Live video is the most frequently employed tool in van Hove’s bag of tricks (see Network, West Side Story, and The Damned), and in the cavernous house of the Metropolitan Opera, the cube runs the risk of looking like the jumbotron at a Knicks game. But the power of this design choice becomes undeniable in the final scene, in which we witness up-close a very realistic execution. On opening night, the audience audibly squirmed when a technician inserted a needle into McKinny’s muscular arm, his terrified eyes staring straight into the camera until they finally shut. You might still walk away supporting capital punishment, but van Hove is going to make sure you really see what that means.
At the same time, the creators make it clear that Joseph absolutely committed this murder, because we watch him do it in a film at the very top of the show (Met music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts this, and the rest of the opera, with goosebump-producing cinematic flair). This is not the story of a falsely convicted man sentenced to death — but does that mean the state should have the right to murder him? Dead Man Walking will leave even the most self-assured partisans of this issue with deep ambivalence. Your brain might justify your your priors, but a knot in the pit of your stomach will leave you wondering, what if I’m wrong?