Reading about the death penalty was difficult enough for the participants in the latest FYI Book Club discussion about “Dead Man Walking” by Sister Helen Prejean. How could singing about it make it any easier?
After a tour of the rehearsal space of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City — which will present the operatic adaptation of the best-seller next month — and after a Skype visit from the author, readers could see how the story of a nun counseling death row inmates could be set to sweeping musical arcs. And they could begin to challenge stances on one of America’s most debated social issues.
Linda Ade Brand, the Lyric’s education director, showed participants the spacious rehearsal hall for singers and musicians, various set pieces, and prop, makeup and fitting rooms.
“This entire opera is powerful and moving, but it’s amazing that at one point, all the characters — the murderer, the victims’ families, Sister Helen, the prison staff, protesters — are all singing at the same time, in one piece, and they are all singing the same thing: ‘You don’t know what it’s like.’ ”
Readers agreed that the sentiment was a key element to Prejean’s story, saying she went to great efforts to show the full death-row experience, the emotion and the sterility of the processes leading up to the day of execution.
Lee Lueck of Overland Park considered another angle: “I appreciated how Sister Helen kept bringing readers back to the crime. She didn’t want us to be completely sympathetic to the killer. She wanted to remind us of the victims’ families’ pain. It contributed to the tension in the book and made it so much more complex.”
During conversation readers learned they were all against the death penalty but welcomed Prejean’s story.
“Her ability to live face to face with these experiences and observations is remarkable,” said Brandon Smith of Kansas City. “I can close the book, but she can’t. It’s a valuable thing to be a friend to someone who is a murderer.”
Howard Wilkens of Kansas City said the book revealed the pain of the death penalty: “Sister Helen shows us the moral and emotional bankruptcy of the death penalty. It’s cruel and unusual to know your death date, and this knowledge spills over to the victim’s family, too. Every time there’s a reprieve the victim’s family has to relive the experience over and over.”
Leigh Blackman of Prairie Village brought up another theme: “Putting the inmate to death robs the families of an opportunity to come to some forgiveness. Their attention is drawn to death instead of coping and coming to a sense of forgiveness. And over the entire process is this layer of civility to mask what it really is.”
Jeffrey Walker of Kansas City, Kan., said, “I didn’t come into this book with a preconceived notion, but I’ve started to see both sides of the argument. People are angry and they want to see closure, but there’s a line in the book spoken by Sister Helen: ‘Now there are two grieving mothers and what have we accomplished?’ It makes one ask how justice has been served.”
“I can’t imagine wanting to be in charge of who lives and who dies,” said Rosemary Boudreaux of Raytown. “But it’s so costly, too. It costs a lot to keep people in prison, but it costs more to put them to death. Even if you don’t look at anything else, that’s enough.”
Via Skype, Prejean talked about taking a serious issue and adapting it to an opera. She picked up on Blackman’s comment about the civility of the process: “ ‘Clinical’ is a good word for it. We don’t want to feel emotion about the death penalty, but opera wants to take you there. Opera wants you to experience all the emotions. Opera brings you to places in your heart you didn’t know you had.”
She talked about her own spiritual journey portrayed in the opera. “The audience sees everything. The point of the journey is for everyone to change along with Sister Helen and the inmate.”
Sharon Hildebrand of Kansas City said, “It made me wonder who are we to be deciding that? This issue is so complicated.”
Sister Helen grabbed that thought eagerly: “That’s what is so great about the opera. It opens with the murder and the criminal. You’re thinking, if anyone deserves the death penalty, it’s this guy. Then you see everyone’s journey in between. And then we end with an execution. Justice is done. When the curtain comes down, there’s silence.”
“That’s why we need the arts to tackle these larger issues. We need movies, plays, books, opera. They tell stories that take you there, and I’m a storyteller. I want to take you on that journey.”
Kaite Mediatore Stover is the Kansas City Public Library’s director of reader’s services.
Join the club
The Kansas City Star and the Kansas City Public Library present a book-of-the-moment selection every few weeks and invite the community to read along. To participate in a book discussion led by the library’s Kaite Stover, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Look in FYI on Feb. 25 for the introduction to the next selection, “In the Time of the Butterflies” by Julia Alvarez.
The Lyric Opera will present “Dead Man Walking” on March 4, 8, 10 and 12 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. See kcopera.org or call 816-471-7344.