Dead Man Walking, the story of Sister Helen Prejean’s spiritual journey and campaign against the death penalty told in her own book where she befriends a prisoner on death row in Louisiana, strikes a powerful chord. It has been made into a film, a play and, in 2000, an opera by Jake Heggie, which now receives its UK staged premiere in this short run at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. In a big bold work to fully stage, a large cast, sizeable chorus, children’s chorus and a substantial orchestra showcased the work of many departments of RCS, bringing the story vividly to life.

Carolyn Holt (Sister Helen) © Tim Morozzo
Carolyn Holt (Sister Helen)
© Tim Morozzo

The opera opens with the rape and murder of two teenagers by Joseph de Rocher and his brother Anthony. It is nasty and brutal, but essential for us to see to dispel any doubt about what happened at the secluded lake on a summer evening in Louisiana. Anthony has the better lawyer and escapes the death penalty, but Joseph is locked up in Angola, the state’s Death Row. Helen Prejean corresponds with Joseph and, against all advice, begins to visit him and agrees to speak for him at an appeal where she meets the murdered teens’ parents and Joseph’s mother. A red telephone, the hotline to the Governor, sits on the table, but the appeal fails with no reprieve possible. Although Joseph’s fate is sealed early on, the opera is primarily concerned with Helen Prejean’s faith and how she handles the challenges of opposition from her fellow nuns, a very unfriendly prison chaplain and, most of all, from parents who describe in detail the ongoing agonies they face as victims, reminded daily by the missing places at the table. The opera does not judge on the death penalty, but Helen’s humanity and faith shines through as Joseph asks her to be his spiritual advisor, a calling she must follow.

It is all very grim stuff, but Terrence McNally’s libretto thankfully provides enough amusement just at the right times to lift the gloom, reflected in the orchestra. Musically, it is a very dense score with strings winding round woodwind with brass underpinning building up considerable tension to reflect Helen Prejean’s mental conflict. The music is lyrical with influences from modern American classical, spiritual, blues with nods to Broadway and even Elvis, but in a long work, I was looking for a greater variety of musical palette. Under American music theatre expert James Holmes‘ baton, all the performers embraced this work with infectious youthful enthusiasm.

Mark Nathan (Joseph) and Carolyn Holt (Sister Helen) © Tim Morozzo
Mark Nathan (Joseph) and Carolyn Holt (Sister Helen)
© Tim Morozzo

Director Caroline Clegg took us through the dynamic 18-scene journey simply and effectively on designer Adrian Linford's wide open fixed set making full use of mobile cell bars, all dramatically lit by Craig Stevenson. Clegg’s fluid movement of chorus and nuanced characterisation of the principals kept the momentum going. The set pieces were terrific from the hymn-singing children in Hope House Mission, Sister Helen’s stick shift car journey (she gets stopped for speeding) and the various prison scenes. The memorable appeal hearing was an outstanding moment with stylised unfriendly officials looking on as the furious parents tried to reason with Helen and Joseph’s mother culminating in a passionately sung sextet.

Forming the backbone of the work, there were two barnstorming performances, Carolyn Holt’s strong spiritual mezzo as Sister Helen provided impressive focus and beautifully bookend the opera with the unaccompanied hymn “He will gather us around”. Mark Nathan, as the condemned Joseph de Rocher, was a perfect match, his full baritone giving an edge of dangerous unpredictability, keeping the truth to himself until the very last moment. Elsewhere, the ensemble of many characters was strong, Fiona Joice as Joseph’s desperate mother and Nia Coleman, Joylon Loy, Lauren Young and Robin Horgan as the bereaved parents all giving impassioned performances. Choral singing was exhilarating, the children’s choir from RCS Junior Chorus exemplary in their lively clapping song.

The UK staged premiere of <i>Dead Man Walking</i> © Tim Morozzo
The UK staged premiere of Dead Man Walking
© Tim Morozzo

Eventually, Helen gets the truth from Joseph, who is able to finally ask forgiveness from the relatives. The long Dead Man Walking scene was intense, the stage a slow whirl of the main characters, prisoners and protestors, the Lord’s Prayer emerging from the tumult as Sister Helen read from Isaiah. At the execution chamber, prison guards sang a slow comforting blues as they dressed Joseph in a regulation white coverall. The red telephone reappeared, but there was no final last-minute reprieve, and Joseph died by lethal injection.

The roll call of RCS creatives gives a clue as to the scale of mounting Dead Man Walking, including fight and intimacy directors, two chorus masters, dialect coach, chaperones, and three repetiteurs. It is a modern American opera that needs to be seen, providing plenty of food for thought on forgiveness and faith.

****1