Minnesota Opera’s ‘Dead Man Walking’ is the redemption story we need

Seth Carico as Joseph De Rocher in the Minnesota Opera’s production of “Dead Man Walking” // Photo by Corey Weaver

The character of Joseph De Rocher isn’t an easy person with whom to sympathize. Besides his scary appearance, with his shaved head and violent tattoos, including a Nazi symbol on his back, Joseph is a murderer and rapist. And yet, through the course of the opera “Dead Man Walking,” the audience, through the eyes of Sister Helen Prejean, is asked to find it in their hearts to forgive him for murdering a teen girl.

Stage Director Joel Ivany doesn’t make it easy. The first scene of the opera is brutal in its depiction of violence. Minnesota Opera even offered late seating for those who would be too triggered to watch it. By showing the horrors of Joseph’s character, the opera sets up its moral premise: that everyone, no matter how villainous, deserves a chance for redemption.

Created by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally, the opera, based on Sister Prejean’s memoir about her experiences on death row, was commissioned by San Francisco Opera and premiered on the War Memorial Opera House stage in 2000. This past weekend, Minnesota Opera staged their debut production at the Ordway.

Catherine Martin, who plays Sister Helen Prejean, bears the brunt of the emotional journey in this tale. A prim nun assured of her own faith, Sister Helen takes a journey of strength and courage as the arch of the narrative progresses. Martin reveals Sister Helen’s vulnerability as she grapples with the weight of her calling.

Mary Evelyn Hangley, left, as Kitty Hart, Andrew Wilkowske, middle, as Owen Hart, and Catherine Martin, right, as Sister Helen in the Minnesota Opera premiere of Dead Man Walking // Photo by Corey Weaver

Mary Evelyn Hangley, left, as Kitty Hart, Andrew Wilkowske, middle, as Owen Hart, and Catherine Martin, right, as Sister Helen in the Minnesota Opera premiere of Dead Man Walking // Photo by Corey Weaver

Helping Martin along are a cast of very strong performers, including Seth Carico playing Joseph, Emily Pulley, who plays Joseph’s mother, and Andrew Wilkowske, playing the father of the teen girl Joseph murdered. Bolstered by Ivany’s emotive staging, the actors take the audience along a heart-wrenching ride.

In fact, the story is so poignant and the actors so affecting, that Heggie’s music gets a bit too overwrought. It’s very accessible, almost cinematic, but it does get a bit schmaltzy at times.

The opera isn’t all tears all the time. There are some moments of comedy woven in, like a scene where Sister Helen gets out of a speeding ticket because the cop wants her to pray for his family member. The Southern accents employed are also a nice touch, and within Heggie’s score are elements of American popular music, which lightens thing up.

The opera’s lighting design by Jax Messenger, and set and projection design by Erhard Rom are lavish. Using extreme contrasts between light and dark, Messenger’s lighting design highlights the story’s theme of pushing through darkness into the light. Both the set design and the lighting design also use repeated use of boxes and squares, to illustrate Joseph’s experience of being trapped—not only in prison, but in the fate he laid for himself.

The Minnesota Opera Chorus in the in the Minnesota Opera premiere of Dead Man Walking // Photo by Corey Weaver

The Minnesota Opera Chorus in the Minnesota Opera premiere of Dead Man Walking // Photo by Corey Weaver

Like the movie, the opera “Dead Man Walking” lays out Sister Helen Prejean’s belief that capital punishment is unjust. However, the opera’s message goes further than merely a political message. Ultimately, it lays out a belief that redemption is possible for everyone.

Performance times: Tuesday, January 30 & Thursday, February 1 at 7:30pm; Saturday, February 3 at 8pm

Venue: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, St. Paul

Tickets: $22.50–$215, mnopera.org, 612-333-6669.