A concert production of “Dead Man Walking,” a modern day opera based on a nonfiction book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, will stage at 3 p.m. Saturday, April 27, in the Coulter Building recital hall on the campus of Western Carolina University.
The opera by Jake Heggie, with libretto by Terrence McNally, examines faith, redemption and the bonds of family as seen through the eyes of a nun who establishes a unique relationship with a convicted murderer who is an inmate on death row in Louisiana’s infamous Angola prison. Of that intimacy is born a spiritual journey that addresses the plight of the condemned and the rage of the bereaved, the needs of a crime-ridden society and the Christian imperative of love. Prejean’s book was adapted for a 1995 film version, starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, that earned four Academy Award nominations, including a win for Sarandon for best actress.
“This opera is accessible and understandable to all. The music sounds like a merging of George Gershwin and Leonard Bernstein and to me feels more like a theatrical work than an opera,” said David Troy Francis, the production’s musical director.
Francis Cullinan will direct the opera, produced by the nonprofit Modern American Music Project. The cast includes Jane Bunnell, an internationally known performer and veteran of the Metropolitan Opera, as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher, the inmate’s mother; Christiaan Smith-Kotlarek as Joseph De Rocher, the death row inmate; and Elise Quagliata as Prejean. Susan Brummell Belcher, a trained opera singer and wife of WCU Chancellor David O. Belcher, will perform the role of Kitty Hart, the mother of a girl De Rocher is convicted of murdering. WCU student Darian Jackson will perform the role of a prison guard. The children’s chorus Celebration Singers of Asheville, as well as a 24-member adult chorus, will provide accompaniment for musical selections.
The opera will be performed the day prior at the University of North Carolina at Asheville, where Prejean also is scheduled to deliver a free lecture on Friday, April 26. Prejean is expected to be in the audience at the Cullowhee show.
Tickets range in price from $25 to $40 and may be purchased online (with a $3.50 surcharge) at tmamp.org or by calling 800-595-4849. For additional information about “Dead Man Walking,” email Francis at email@example.com or call 828-298-0300.