How will Director Francesca Zambello accompany her singer’s journey on the dark and lonely path of playing the nun who befriended a convicted killer and witnessed his execution? This is what I wondered while watching Kate Lindsey prepare her Washington National Opera debut in the lead role of Sister Helen Prejean in Dead Man Walking.
Trust is surely a key ingredient. Zambello’s mostly silent but totally absorbed focus on Lindsey’s every move and choice throughout rehearsals has demonstrated that she not only had implicit faith that the singer would get to performance level but most importantly, along the way, she would find the character’s core and face her own fears to provide emotional truth, a hallmark of Zambello’s stage direction of operas.
It has been mezzo soprano Lindsey’s and Zambello’s first time working together.
As days slipped into weeks, Zambello left Lindsey the space to find her way, explore the layers of emotion in her character’s relationships with Joseph De Rocher, the condemned man, De Rocher’s mother, his brothers, and the families of the slain victims.
I wasn’t prepared for an opera singer to work so close to the bone from the start. Lindsey never seemed to back down either vocally or in her acting. I never saw her “mark” a moment until the load in and tech at the Kennedy Center. Was this normal? I wondered. Even advisable? Many opera singers back off from doing anything so fearless and exposed vocally.
Stage Manager Lynn Krynicki assured me that it’s a personal choice for singers, and some singers, “…like Kate, they just have to go to that place time and again.”
Zambello seems confident not just in the young singer she has cast but in the process itself. Lindsey may be new to the Washington National Opera company but she has seen plenty of operas that Zambello has directed. “Francesca is steeped in the experience of directing opera. She knows the ups and downs of the process of mounting opera and perhaps in particular the particular stresses put on singers.”
Although Zambello knows when to stand out of the way, you can believe she is very forceful about what she wants her cast to tackle. She can step up and boldly force her singers to rise to the occasion. But her way with the principal singers in this production is to provide parameters, encourage them to take an active role in shaping their characters, and provide feedback where necessary.
Zambello’s authority comes from deeply understanding the period and the characters. In this case, Sister Helen’s world of rural Louisiana was a modern and very real context. (See the earlier chronicles of this journey.) The director encouraged the performers to talk with each other. Lindsey shared that “Michael (Michael Mayes who plays Joseph De Rocher, the condemned man) and I talked a lot. We talked about the toxic shame of living in a prison environment, the helplessness, how easy it is to be pushed into crime, and how abuse begets abuse.”
After a few days of table discussion, Lindsey and her cohorts got on their feet and were instructed to act the scenes, speaking the lines. Getting away from the music that drives the dialogue is more unusual than you might think, but it was a way to find the rhythms of the text. Even more rare in opera is that Conductor Michael Christie, sitting in rehearsals, remained open to let the singers find different emphases, maybe slightly push a phrase in a new way to find the most natural speaking rhythm of the text. Some old hands in classic operatic repertoire would say this is sacrilege to the more typical composer’s pre-eminence. Tant pis.
The team of Zambello and Christie encouraged the singers to find more freedom beat by beat. This was liberating to Lindsey particularly who seems equally serious a practitioner of her acting craft as of her singing. “I thought it was one of the main differences between singing opera and say acting in drama, and then I met Jeff Daniels. He and I were talking about this very thing, and he said, “Well actually, with a really good playwright or television scriptwriter, you need to pay attention and play it as if he has written a piece of music.”
As scene work moved into run-throughs, Lindsey kept molding, trying new things and never setting a gesture or a position. Even the vocal colors she brought to each rehearsal seemed unusually daring for opera. At the end of Act I, Sister Helen has become lightheaded from lack of food and the stress of the long drive to State Penitentiary at Angola. The entire cast gathers on stage around her, adding layers of sound textures and building a growing roar of words and phrases. The tension of her being closed in is palpable. In the middle of her aural hallucination, her voice suddenly takes on a strange quality. She shifts the placement of her voice and, in the sudden stillness, projects an eerie, unoperatic straight tone as if it is coming from very far away. She has found this on her own, but as she says, “Francesca will tell me if it doesn’t work.”
There is another dimension that is happening all along during the rehearsals. By bringing in Susan Graham, the originator of the Sister Helen role, Zambello has embraced what might have been a tricky situation between these two talented mezzo sopranos. Zambello has gambled that there would be the opportunity to mine extra depth and for Lindsey to benefit from the close relationship Graham had with the opera’s creators, especially Jake Heggie, the composer.
Graham mostly stays on the other side of the rehearsal hall from Lindsey. In fact, Lindsey seems a disctinctly private person, usually sitting by herself, always thinking something through, wasting no time in distracting talk, and preparing emotionally for each grueling run through demanded of her character. Nonetheless, Lindsey speaks of nothing but admiration for Graham. She admits that there were some initial feelings of intimidation of being watched by the more experienced singer in the role and her subsequent self-consciousness. But she says she had to let it go and focus on her work.
What Graham brings to the ensemble is not only history with the opera but her deep experience with what it takes to immerse yourself in the journey of the story. “She has been so generous and helpful,” says Lindsey.
The powerful casting with the three leads is one of the most electrifying aspects of watching the production’s birthing.
As Mrs. De Rocher, Graham has her own journey. In the courtroom scene where the mother has to plea for the life of her son, Graham first let the sorrow and pain wash over and through her. The singer’s vast resources as a singer seem buried in her emotional immersion. Then in the next run, she explored a steely strength for this poor uneducated woman. There was both dignity and anger as she described the way she and her other sons have been spurned in the small town. She continues to layer the emotional shifts and, as she does, she begins to share more fully what makes her voice such a supple and powerful instrument in opera.
Michael Mayes as “Joseph De Rocher 95281” is in the role so deeply from the beginning and has lived it so long, he seems to know unfailingly what he wants. I imagine there may have been a few times when Zambello has had to deal with that head on her production take. But mostly she defers to what the singer-actor needs in the way of physical support or restraints from the guards and others or the extra time he needs to “get back his oxygen” when he has to perform pushups, counting over 50, while singing.
At one point Zambello had directed for some space and stillness around the condemned man on his last walk so that “a parenthesis” in the action could be sustained, providing a special moment between De Rocher and the nun, his spiritual supervisor. Mayes had asked for the support of the guards to hold him up as his character’s legs start to give out. Zambello didn’t change it for him in that rehearsal, but I notice that by the next rehearsal, Mayes was being held up by the guards.
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Now the company has loaded into the Kennedy Center and inevitably there are adjustments in the new space. Mostly Zambello’s attention goes to rectifying stage pictures. She tells the men’s chorus to spread out more and back up more quickly to execute a smoother transition into the next scene. She sharply tells the victim’s family members not to bunch up so that the different family units are clearly demarcated.
Subtle gestures need more weight and presence in the cavernous opera house. But being a modern opera, the singers also need to adhere to a contemporary and “realistic” movement vocabulary. It’s a tricky balance.
Zambello tries to make sense of the room where the last meeting of the families takes place, and the Coke machine gets dragged back on stage to frame the space and establish a real room. The irony of the final moments before the death penalty is enacted is not lost when the big red vending box is pivoted ninety degrees to reveal the ad, “Here’s the real thing.”
“I’m over these squares,” says an understandably tired and testy Zambello during tech rehearsal. The said squares are demarcations by light for different locations. They become the car, prison cells, waiting rooms, and the bedroom and schoolroom where Sister Helen lives and works. Like Heggie’s strong libretto, the design creates a lean and suggested world, a stark penned-in interior revealing the story’s essence.
Zambello’s machine-like focus continues to shape the taut psychological drama with music. With opening only a few days away, I leave this Chronicle and prepare to sit in the audience as a reviewer. I already know that opera lovers will appreciate this extraordinary core of singers. For people who skirt opera, I predict that Dead Man Walking will break their expectations of what opera is. For the rest, we will see what opening night brings.
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