Archive for the ‘Dead Man Walking March 2013’ Category

From Oregon Arts Watch


Weekend MusicWatch: Opera old and new

Published March 15, 2013, in MUSIC

deadman walking

Michael Mayes stars in Eugene Opera’s Dead Man Walking.

Apologists for Oregon’s hidebound classical music institutions whine about how hard it is to program new music. Crusty old-school audiences (unlike every other performing art form in America) won’t take a chance on unfamiliar names, they claim. New works are expensive. Etc etc.

So what are we to make of plucky Eugene Opera? Seemingly moribund a few years ago, the company has resuscitated itself not by exclusively programming the usual top ten operas that make up a high percentage of American opera program, but instead by also including works by contemporary, West Coast composers. Last year, it was a well-received production of John Adams’s 1987 breakthrough, “Nixon in China,” and, opening this weekend at the Hult Center for two performances only, it’s another contemporary classic: San Francisco composer Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” which has received more than 30 productions and rave reviews since its 2000 premiere.

The company’s general director since 2006, Mark Beudert, has built the production into a larger citywide discussion, with events at the University of Oregon law school, Eugene Public Library, City Club, and Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts, and including appearances by composer Heggie and by the author of the celebrated book the opera (and Tim Robbins’ masterful 1995 film) was based on, Sister Helen Prejean. Maybe Oregon’s other institutions can learn survival lessons from what once seemed to be a dead man singing.


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Isn’t that the greatest headline?  It’s from an article in this week’s Eugene Weekly, about Eugene Opera and our production of Dead Man Walking:


Opera: Not Dead


A few years ago, the Eugene Opera seemed moribund — a “dead man walking,” to use the phrase applied in prison to an inmate condemned to death. But in the past couple of years, it’s gotten a reprieve — or rather engineered a resurrection. Instead of taking the timid, ultimately self-defeating course of pandering to an aging core audience with endless recyclings of the same top ten operatic/symphonic warhorses (see: Portland Opera, Eugene Symphony, Oregon Symphony) by dead European composers, artistic director Mark Beudert decided to embrace the present and future, choosing contemporary American works by the great West Coast composer John Adams (Nixon in China) and, opening this weekend, Dead Man Walkingby another acclaimed Bay Area-based star, Jake Heggie.

Since its premiere in 2000, Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally’s compelling opera has put the lie to two tired myths about contemporary classical music to rest: that it never survives beyond its premiere (it’s been produced over 30 times) and that it has to be musically off-putting. Heggie knows how to write engagingly for voice; he could have easily been a Broadway composer. Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean (later turned into a powerful movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), Dead Man Walking, which chronicles a nun’s struggle to help a condemned murderer find redemption, is perfectly suited for the high drama and passion that opera does so well.

How can Eugene Opera succeed by looking forward when so many other conservative classical music institutions go so rigidly retro? First, it makes sense that contemporary audiences — not the supposedly close-minded core audiences so many companies build their subscription series around, but the broad audience of people who love music — will be interested in art that deals with contemporary concerns. Second, the opera has embedded it, like Nixon, in a larger tapestry of city wide events — Prisons, Compassion, and Peace — that started in January and continues with a conference at the UO Law School and other events at the Eugene Public Library, City Club, Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts and more, including talks by Sister Prejean and Heggie. (See the Opera’s website for details.) By explicitly connecting contemporary classical music to contemporary culture, Eugene Opera is helping make opera relevant to 21st-century Oregon.

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Photography:  Cliff Coles

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Perhaps the most heart-breaking moment from Dead Man Walking:  the de Rocher family posing for a picture during their last visit with Joseph.

DMW JdR and family

Photography:  Cliff Coles

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DMW Act II Elvis

Photography:  Cliff Coles

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Michael Mayes in an unforgettable moment!


Photography:  Cliff Coles

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Woman on the tier.


Photography:  Cliff Coles

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