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Reflection: 'Dead Man Walking' makes great choice for your first opera

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 22, 2011 - Not an opera fan? It doesn't matter. Chances are you'll still enjoy "Dead Man Walking," composed by Jake Heggie. Union Avenue Opera Theatre has two more performances this coming weekend.

It can take a few minutes to acclimate to Sister Helen Prejean trilling simple phrases that are said, not sung, in real life, like "It's a three-hour drive," about her plan to visit Louisiana death row inmate Joseph De Rocher.

As you likely know from the 1995 movie, De Rocher was found guilty of killing a teenage couple who'd been making out in a secluded spot. The play's prologue shows him raping and stabbing the 17-year-old girl, and his brother shooting her boyfriend execution style.

Despite the terrible crime for which he's been convicted, Prejean, played by Elise Quagliata, is moved by De Rocher's letters, the last of which requests the in-person meeting. Even murderers are God's children, she proclaims to skeptical Sister Rose (Marlissa Hudson) as the Union Avenue Christian Church's stained-glass Jesus looks down upon the stage.

Setting off on the trip with only hand movements suggesting a steering wheel, Prejean takes any doubting audience members with her. The concerns about the journey that she shares ring true, and you begin to hang on her every note (while checking the projected titles on either side of the stage). Even the opera novice who initially found humor in the musical delivery of everyday speech will be drawn in by this production. Soon, any laughter is due to the opera's genuinely funny parts.

For example, with flashing red and blue lights in the background effectively portraying a police car, an officer pulls Prejean over for speeding. As he debates how to handle the stop, the audience experiences the delightful juxtaposition of high art and low grammar when he intones, "I never gave no ticket to a nun before."

Then, the punch line and its implications for his immortal soul: "Gave a ticket to an IRS agent one time. Got audited that year."

Sorrow, of course, is the predominant emotion as you meet De Rocher's mother and the hollow-with-grief parents of the murdered teenagers.

In the final scene of Act One, fellow death row inmates -- singing down from their "cells" in the balcony -- join De Rocher (Jordan Shanahan) and all the parents in a haunting cacophony of pleas for help, voices in the head of Prejean.

Act Two requires Kleenex. Between the memories of the victims' parents, De Rocher's good-bye scene with his mother and Prejean finally eliciting a confession from De Rocher, it's an emotional hour. The fact that his mother isn't allowed to bring in the cookies she'd baked for her son is a heart-wrenching detail.

"Dead Man Walking" belongs to an emerging trend of contemporary historical opera. With half of Union Avenue Opera Theatre-goers age 60 and older and only 16 percent between the ages of 21 and 39, it's probably a smart move to try something new and perhaps attract a wider audience.

And to read what Sister Helen Prejean has to say about the death penalty, read "An interview with Sister Helen Prejean."

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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