A rare inside look at the making of an opera. Washington National Opera’s Artistic Director Francesca Zambello invited Susan Galbraith to sit in on rehearsals of Dead Man Walking. This is her first report.
First Day – The Gathering of Forces
Monday, January 30, and it’s the first day of rehearsals for the opera Dead Man Walking by composer Jake Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally. It is cited as the most frequently produced contemporary American opera.
Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean about her own journey with death row inmates whose stories are conflated in both the film and opera to be one character, she comes to know a killer over two years and walks with him on his final steps and witnesses his execution.
The first things that hit me when I entered Washington National Opera’s rehearsal space in Takoma Park are the sheer size of space and volume of forces that it takes to put on a production in a major opera house. (And this ain’t Aida, an opera “with elephants.”)
Though I’d been to the premises before, my tour with Michael Solomon reminds me that, in addition to practice rooms and offices for the artistic and administrative staff, there are three rehearsal rooms each larger than the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Stage. (I thought, a dozen of Washington’s smaller theatre companies could be housed in these rooms alone.)
Then there is the costume construction room, where the draper and costume director Martha Leboeuf presides over a staff and six or eight volunteer seamstress. In the costume room there is a tower of buttons. Down the hall is a room reserved just for dyeing and another room marked for spraying, as well as a room to construct hats and such things as armor.
The costume storage might as well be its own warehouse where from a ceiling high rod runs a whole line of corsets right the length of the warehouse. There is a wall lined with boots, another with women’s shoes, and of course a fabulous collection of costumes held over from other productions.
One of the rehearsal halls is abuzz with eighty-some people. Thirty-one in the company alone, and that doesn’t count for the additional twenty in the children’s chorus who will be getting their own private introduction to this work later in the week. Opera singers have big personalities and phonate loudly as they greet each other and mingle.
I recognize Elisabeth Bishop, who had made such a strong impression on me in “The Ring” last spring as Fricka, chief god Wotan’s wife. In the front row sat Michael Mayes who already seemed in the part of Joseph de Rocher, the convicted killer, wearing a blood-red cowboy shirt with white piping, and looking decidedly un-Washingtonian. In the same row sat Kate Lindsey, a slender young woman who would be taking on Sister Helen’s journey in this production.
On the other side of the auditorium sat Susan Graham, who as America’s favorite Mezzo-soprano, comes as close as you get to opera royalty. She created the role of Sister Helen in the original production. Now, little more than sixteen years later she had been wooed back by Director Francesca Zambello to play the killer’s mother, Mrs. Rocher. A brilliant stroke of casting, for who would know better than she how to go deeply and help the entire ensemble through the emotional story?
Enter Francesca Zambello. We begin.
Zambello was the last to enter the hall. In my mind, I think of this towering, forceful woman as “Madame Z.” I have seen her enter a space with the force of a whirling dervish, swooping down on unsuspecting audience members to challenge them whether they’d bought season tickets yet; she has certainly proved to be WNO’s own PR engine. Likewise, after a performance, I’ve heard her perfunctorily bark, “Is that a question? I said we only wanted questions.”
But here she was in slightly faded blue jeans, a black sweatshirt, and comfortable black shoe boots, her hair tousled in a mop of reddish brown curls. She looked like – well, like me with about a foot of extra height. She appeared to be ready to get down to work and soon after her entrance took the podium.
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Dead Man Walking
February 25 – March 11, 2017
Details and tickets
As Artistic Director of WNO, she was the reason I was here. I’d seen her direct some “biggies” including the awesome 17-hour Ring of the Nibelung last season. But I knew her heart was especially devoted to American opera and developing American singers. For years I have followed her work, both at the Kennedy Center and in her summer artistic home at Glimmerglass Festival on Lake Otsego in New York.
To my mind, she does what I have never seen executed as brilliantly before: she balances her direction between respecting the composer’s score, the operatic obligatory skill to “stage crowds” so they don’t look a clunky afterthought, and the moment-to-moment “beat work” with singer-actors that reveals emotional truth.
She spoke about her mission “to do theatre not to pick any sides but to give people an experience that they can relate to and be moved by.” She spoke of the two operas she is presiding over in rep this month, Dead Man Walking and Champion. She smiled and said, two years ago when she programmed these two works, she had had no idea that the themes of capital punishment, race, economic poverty and the inequitable justice and prison systems (and added to these, in Champion, the themes of immigrants and homophobia) would be so in our consciousness as they have been forced to the front in our recent national election.
Angola State Penitentiary
Zambello talked about beginning her own journey to understand the background of the story. She showed slides about her recent drive down to Louisiana. She related how she’d gone to Bogue Chitto State Park, two hundred miles east of New Orleans and had clambered down a red clay ravine to see the spot where the murders of two teenagers had taken place. She talked about the long drive to Angola State Penitentiary where men were locked in cells, miles from nowhere, where their families could hardly afford ever to get to, even if they had a mind to visit.
She shared how she’d met Sister Helen, a most “un-nunlike person”. They’d spent an evening in a roadhouse knocking back whiskeys and sharing stories. Sister Helen gave Zambello few orders to follow in her production, but she did say “Don’t anybody be like a nun. I hate that.” (She had told something of the same to Heggie when he was working on the opera, adding, “And don’t put in a lot of that atonal music. I hate that ____!”
As she spoke, Zambello was creating a shared atmosphere in which the entire team could work. I could feel the heat, the sweat trickling down my back, the red clay, the insects singing at night, and the drawl. It’s a drawl that as surely as it defines “the Bible belt” defines the “death penalty belt.”
Zambello takes us in the gates of the prison through her words. She described the bleak isolation, the tough male society a prison produces, the clanging of metal bars, and the eerie cry that will be heard in the opera, “Woman on the tier.” There was a museum in the prison; displayed were the instruments of death.
Maybe there were some singers, as there are, who were sitting in the room humming internally their arias, and just wanting to get on stage to do their work. But I bet most were benefiting from the vibes. It was definitely feeling creepier.
Occasionally, Zambello asked for some comments from two of the designers. Set designer Allen Moyer showed a few slides of the most minimalist of sets. Lighting on the black slick floors would “Create the geography of spaces.” There’d be a car and a ubiquitous Coke machine that in the night scenes would glow iconically.
Costume designer Jessica Jahn talked about the challenge of getting right a very specific period time and place in the nineteen-eighties, how she worked to distinguish the controlled color palette in the prison vs the bright pastels of the family members, and the distinctly non-nun colors of Sister Helen.
Curiously, these key designers spoke standing from their seats. Only conductor Michael Christie, who is working for the first time with Zambello and who hails from Minneapolis and the Minnesota Opera, came forward as an equal to Zambello and addressed the assembly from the front of the room. “Maestro.” His work will be featured later.
I looked around the room after we were dismissed. It was hard to believe that in three and a half weeks the opera would be up and performing at Kennedy Center. February 25 would be its official opening. It was thrilling to imagine this story performed for the first time in Washington, in a city swirling with issues and “sides.”
The opera, I am sure, will break hearts open to its shocking truths. I hope you will go on this chronicle of preparing it. Already, I can promise you, it will be an awakening.
I hope you will join me as I chronicle the making of Dead Man Walking.