Perhaps no other art form has the emotional intensity to tackle the elemental themes of love and death, forgiveness and revenge, condemnation and redemption like opera. That’s what makes “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean’s book about her experiences counseling inmates on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, such potent operatic subject matter.
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City will present “Dead Man Walking,” with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Terrence McNally, for four performances beginning Saturday, March 4, at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.
First performed in San Francisco in 2000, “Dead Man Walking” has already established itself as one of the most popular new operas of the past 50 years. There have been more than 54 productions since its premiere, and now the work will receive its first staging in Kansas City.
Baritone David Adam Moore sings the role of Joseph De Rocher, a composite of the two murderers Prejean wrote about in her book. Moore says he has tried to bring empathy to the role and understand what motivated De Rocher.
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“Whenever you portray a character who behaves in a way that we see as despicable, you always have to ask is this person behaving badly because of some sort of unfulfilled need or some sort of effort to be loved that’s gone awry, or is this person a psychopath, someone whose brain wiring is way out of step with the typical model,” he says.
Moore believes that De Rocher committed his terrible crimes out of built-up rage related to growing up poor and without a father. But do these disadvantages excuse rape and murder?
“Absolutely not,” Moore says. “But as an actor, my job is not to judge my character. My job is to understand my character’s point of view as fully as I can. Even if I find his behavior abhorrent or repulsive, I have to look at him with total empathy because if I go out there and present him as someone who is just a terrible son of a bitch who doesn’t deserve love, then I’m going to present a very flat and boring character.”
Moore says “Dead Man Walking” doesn’t preach or advocate a particular position on the death penalty. However, Deborah Sandler, general director and CEO of the Lyric Opera, says the opera does relate Prejean’s spiritual journey and her view of the death penalty.
“It’s about the compassion she developed being a counselor to a death row convict,” Sandler says. “But I don’t think it’s going to convince anybody who’s pro death penalty to change their mind. If you’re against the death penalty, it will reinforce your point of view. And for people who don’t have a particular opinion, it will give them an opportunity to consider points of views.”
The opera doesn’t focus on just De Rocher and Prejean, Sandler says. It also presents the suffering of the families of De Rocher’s victims with compassion and sensitivity. In fact, the incredible pain De Rocher’s crimes inflicted on them is an essential part of the story.
“Dead Man Walking” was a very successful book when it was published in 1993. The 1995 movie version starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn was also highly regarded. So why did we need an opera version?
“The truth of the matter is that through lyrical expression we elevate the thoughts,” Sandler says. “In an opera, you have ensembles, you have duets, you have trios, you have quartets, you have sextets. Through people singing ensembles at the same time you hear different points of view, which you don’t get in a book and you don’t get in a movie because usually only one person speaks at a time.”
Moore also appreciates the subject matter and the characters because the world of lower-income Americans is largely absent from opera stages.
“I am a native of Texas who grew up on the Louisiana border,” Moore says. “But I’m much more accustomed to portraying 18th-century Spanish nobility than people and situations which relate to the environment in which I grew up. In ‘Dead Man Walking,’ I’m portraying someone who is from that Louisiana Cajun culture, and I’m half Cajun. My family has lived in the South for hundreds of years. So to tell this story in what I consider the most magnificent art form that exists is an incredible privilege.”
In addition, the Lyric Opera will present “The Journey Continues: An Evening With Sister Helen Prejean” on Friday, March 3, at the Kauffman Center. The event is free, but an RSVP is required. Call 816-471-7344 or visit KCOpera.org.
At 20, violinist Simone Porter is on the cusp of classical music stardom.
The Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient made a splash when she performed with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic last year, and she also made a big impression on those who heard her perform at the Harriman-Jewell Series Prelude Gala in 2015. In fact, she made such an impression that the series is bringing her back for a free Discovery Concert on Sunday, Feb. 26, at the Folly Theater.
Porter, accompanied by pianist Armen Guzelimian, will perform a program of light and shadow, happiness and angst, as well as spiritual transcendence.
The program will open with a joyous sonata by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart followed by a sonata in a much different mood by Leos Janáček. Composed at the outset of World War I, Janáček’s only violin sonata reflects the harrowing world situation at the time.
The second half of the concert will open with “Fratres” by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. This unusual, trance-like work is an example of Pärt’s “tintinnabuli” style, which evokes the ringing of bells. The recital will conclude with Johannes Brahms’ tempestuous Violin Sonata No. 3.
An appearance on the Harriman-Jewell Series in 1968 sparked Alvin Ailey’s interest in Kansas City. With the encouragement of his friend Richard Harriman, Ailey made Kansas City a second home for his esteemed and expanding dance company.
The Kansas City Friends of Alvin Ailey has gone on to become one of our most treasured arts organizations. Through its diverse arts education programs and annual presentations of the New York-based Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Ailey II, Kansas City has been enriched immeasurably.
KCFAA will present the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Friday, March 3, and Saturday, March 4, at Yardley Hall at Johnson County Community College. A highlight of the program will be Ailey’s “Revelations,” widely regarded as one of the great American dance works of the 20th century.
The company also will present the world premiere of “r-Evolution, Dream” by long-time Ailey dancer Hope Boykin.
Following the Saturday night performance is the KCFAA’s annual Inspire gala benefit with dinner and dancing at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art. Inspire is always a grand time, and, most importantly, helps raise funds for KCFAA’s many worthy programs.
For more information about the Inspire gala, visit KCFAA.org.