Rehearsing Dead Man Walking: digging deeper in Week 2

I am being given an intimate look inside the rehearsal rooms of Washington National Opera’s Dead Man Walking under the direction of WNO’s Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. This report marks the end of Week 2 of rehearsals. Starting Monday, we are barely two weeks away from its opening night, February 25th.

Most people might surmise that an operatic stage director’s job involves a good eye to arrange bodies attractively on stage, the know-how to analyze and respect a composer’s score (trawling therein for action clues,) and an interpretive focus to tell the story his or her way. Zambello, as I reported from Week One, also has the  requisite stomach to examine coolly graphic murder pictures, take a tour of Louisiana State Penitentiary with men on death row, and then knock back whiskeys on the bayou with a feisty nun.

Set Design (Allen Moyer) for Washington National Opera’s Dead Man Walking: the visiting center, death row

Zambello has, of course, prepared a draft in her score, but this is just a starting place, and she acknowledges that usually there are changes as the artists bring their own work to the production. Her draft serves only as a back-up plan, “if people are too tight to offer.” I’d use that as a warning, as there are some opera singers who are used to being the equivalent of ‘push-me-pull-yous’ led around the stage by directors.

Kate Lindsey will be playing Sister Helen Prejean in Washington National Opera’s Dead Man Walking

In terms of chorus (kids, supers, adults,) she makes “a very specific ground plan of staging.” There are a lot of bodies on stage. In addition to the principals, there is a children’s chorus of twenty who play the students of Sister Helen and an adult male chorus of twenty as maximum security inmates. (Spoiler alert, this group of men will scare the living bejesus out of you.)  There is also a small female chorus of various mothers and nuns as well as supernumeraries or “supers,” who essentially serve in non-singing roles such as prison guards and help move bodies and furniture, create a more realistic environment, and are otherwise present to keep people safe.

Zambello is particularly fond of her children’s chorus. In one moment, she’ll demand silence or chastise them for not following a direction, “Didn’t I say smile when you skip in your circle? This opera has got to start out on a joyous note. I want you all smiling. And when that school bell rings, you get to go home. What do you do when you hear a school bell to let you out of classes?” The students oblige her with loud squeals of delight.

I see she can also be tender with the adults. At the end of every scene, she stops and takes everyone’s temperature? “Are we all right? Is everyone okay?”  She means it. There is quite a lot of tough medicine to swallow in the show.

In the first week, she and her very capable staff acted, sometimes in concert and sometimes not, to serve as lion guard dogs at the gates to any visitors. Now, the children get their own private introduction to the story and its tough themes. Even in the first run through, Zambello has thoughtfully planned ahead and asked the male “inmates” to tone down a scene.

This guarding of feelings extends to her care for singers’ privacy and the emotional work needed. I’ve been barred more than once from attending a rehearsal in the interest of protecting singers’ inner work.

Susan Graham, the mezzo soprano who originated the role of Sister Helen, had initially turned down the offer because she sensed it would be just too difficult. She has returned to the show as the murderer’s mother, Mrs. De Rocher. She warned the entire cast on the first day that there would need to be periodic crying breaks for the performers.  In a first run through, Graham demonstrates the courage it takes to bring to life another deeply penetrating role. In one of the most moving arias in the work, Mrs. De Rocher has to make a plea to the court on behalf of her son.

Zambello holds that safe place for her singers. Graham and she have worked before, and a trusting bond has been built between them.

Michael Mayes, and Susan Graham preparing to play Joseph De Rocher and his mother Mrs. De Rocher in Washington National Opera’s Dead Man Walking

More than any other art form, there is so little clearance for mistakes in the work it takes between the throats two fragile vocal cords. The throat, through which the singer’s voice passes, is the same place that houses and expresses emotion, and it can seize up. It’s the tightrope walk of opera that demands allowing the true emotion to come through yet hitting the notes and being able to modulate a ribbon of sound. Jake Heggie’s score presents the ultimate test.

Want to go?

Dead Man Walking
6 performances:
February 25 – March 11, 2017
Details and tickets

If week one was about reading the words, then singing through the score, the rehearsals were also filled with a lot about the characters, the history, and the specific situations. Zambello likes to get people on their feet soon but initially she just gets the singers to speak the lines in their score. I think this is a clue: the veracity and ownership of what the singers bring to their roles is a core value of Zambello’s direction.

The company spends a lot of time talking, and Zambello encourages them to talk to each other.

Now we’re rounding up week two, and Zambello has been digging deeply into the red clay of the original story.  She uses psychology to help shape the conversation about character motivation, urging all the performers, including the various chorus members, to go more deeply into their character excavations and personal invention. In the case of what is demanded of this opera, it has to be said she must get some ghoulish satisfaction out of cannibalizing people’s pain. Zambello is intrepid.

The whole opera is a journey into fear.  Sister Helen started on her journey by answering a death row convict’s letter. Zambello and her cast of singers are now on their own journeys to face the same.

I must tell you of the first entrance of Michael Mayes into the rehearsal room for a run through. (He plays the killer Joseph De Rocher and been out sick for a week.) Standing six-foot-one, and giving the appearance of being even taller, next to Kate Lindsey who plays Sister Helen, towers over her. Despite shackles that rattle and create a drag-and-shuffle to his walk, he seemed like a wild animal that might spring and break those chains any minute. He has lived in this role through several productions;  his face draws down heavily until all you can see is his heavy brow like some pre-human link. She showed us a grotesque coiled-with-rage bestiality hiding a primal fear. Later, I imagined this is what poverty, ignorance, and a life-and-death sentence in prison can do to some people. But in the moments after his first scene, even in the bare rehearsal room setting, I’d sat frozen, both hating and feeling for this terrifying man.

Stage Manager Lynn Krynicki had whispered to me previously, “If you want to know Dead Man Walking, this is the guy you want to hear sing the role.”

The discovery of an opera in a first run through is electrifying. Zambello sits, transfixed. She takes no notes. Occasionally she speaks quietly over her shoulder to her assistant E. Loren Meeker.

“It is always about trust and pushing performers to go farther as you go into week two, “ is what she wrote to me. “People have to trust each other, really hold each other up as best they can. I try to help them find things in themselves to bring to it.”

There are light moments, even joyous and funny moments in this opera, and the work comes around to one of love and redemption. You couldn’t ask for more glorious singer-actors.

But Zambello is determined to take us on the journey of our lives, nothing less. Like an Old Testament prophet, she has seen what turning our backs on our basic humanity has done to us.  This is a warning, folks.  We ignore our broken justice system and our poorest, who get caught up in its viciousness, at our peril. Haven’t we all suffered enough? Haven’t we?

Witnessing Dead Man Walking the opera may just be our own collective first step to redemption. It is surely. I can already see, Zambello’s vision for the work.

Show me more from this series


Susan Galbraith About Susan Galbraith

Susan Galbraith received a BA in English and Drama from Tufts University, graduating summa cum laude and Phi beta kappa. Settling in Minneapolis for a time, she earned an MFA from the University of Minnesota, founded a theatre company, Performers Ensemble, and also collaborated with Prince on writing songs and the first draft of Purple Rain. Susan was part of the acting company at Boston Shakespeare Company under Peter Sellars. Since 1991, she has made D.C. her home where she has enjoyed the opportunity to write plays, direct, act, and produce. She helped co-found Alliance for New Music-Theatre and collaborated on original works across disciplines, styles, and cultural expressions of music-theatre. For the Alliance, Susan adapted and directed Kafka's Metamorphosis and is currently collaborating with composer Maurice Saylor on adapting Karel Capek's R.U.R. (Rossum's Universal Robots) as a retro-futuristic musical.This Fall she directs an "apartment performance" of Vaclav Havel's Protest which will perform in D.C. and NYC.


  1. Margot Russells says:

    Thank you for this beautiful chronicle! How fascinating it must be to see the “work in progress”. And thank you also for the photos! Hoping for more…



Anti-Spam Quiz:

Reprint Policy Our articles may not be reprinted in full but only as excerpts and those portions may only be used if a credit and link is provided to our website.
DC Theatre Scene is supported in part by the DC Commission on the Arts & Humanities and by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC.