I watched and listened as mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade performed on the Music Hall stage July 6. It was an evening dress rehearsal for the Cincinnati Opera production of Dead Man Walking, and she appeared early in the second act.
Her voice was remarkable, filling the near-empty auditorium with passion and beauty. Still, seeing von Stade on-stage generates a feeling of excitement that's separate from simply experiencing a mesmerizing opera production.
When it comes to embracing new millennium artworks and pushing Cincinnati onto the world stage, nothing compares to Cincinnati Opera's decision to stage Dead Man Walking. Granted, one opera can't manipulate a trend. Nevertheless, this production is a bold step into the realm of progressive programming. The company has taken risks before, but nothing that compares with Dead Man Walking.
Of course, presenting this oopera becomes a positive trend only if audiences flock to see its three performances. I can tell only about what I saw at the rehearsal and the heart-wrenching impact it had.
As for those patrons who stay away from opera productions that aren't part of the tried-and-true, I'm confident that Dead Man Walking will impress them if they give it half a chance.
Speaking before the rehearsal, Cincinnati Opera Artistic Director Nic Muni explained the story behind Dead Man Walking to the guests. A new work by American composer Jake Heggie, the opera is based on Sr. Helen Prejean's 1993 book. The opera recounts the story of Sr. Helen (Margaret Jane Wray), a Louisiana nun who becomes the spiritual advisor to Death Row inmate Joseph de Rocher (John Packard). As they fight to overturn his death sentence, de Rocher and Sr. Helen become friends.
Many of the July 6 attendees were staff and supporters from the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, which is set to open in 2004. Cincinnati Opera is finalizing its commission of a new opera to celebrate the center's opening. The work won't be announced until next spring, with scheduled performances in summer 2005, but Muni wanted Freedom Center personnel to get a taste of his creative thinking with Dead Man Walking.
It's safe to say that Cincinnati Opera will commission a work that's contemporary, topical and challenging. Asked how he thinks Cincinnati will respond to a topical opera like Dead Man Walking a few days before the July 6 rehearsal, Muni summed up local audiences: "I do not feel this opera will alarm our audience. On the contrary, I feel our audience is as sophisticated as the opera audience in San Francisco, where the opera had its premiere with such amazing success. I believe our audience will be excited that opera can embrace such a contemporary story with such beautiful music.
"Dead Man Walking is a story of our time, and the subject matter of capital punishment may be challenging to some. However, the true story of Dead Man Walking is about love and redemption. It is an intense emotional drama — which is very familiar territory for opera audiences, and why many people are so passionate about this art form."
On Thursday, Dead Man Walking audiences will witness a production that goes beyond the reach of traditional opera. They'll experience a story that's political and controversial. Through beautiful music and stunning sets, they'll see Death Row in larger-than-life fashion.
Dead Man Walking is bound to make an impact on all who see it. Muni, who's taken a risk by bringing this opera to town, believes the reaction will be positive. For now, I'm willing to share his enthusiasm.
Thanks to the acclaim surrounding Dead Man Walking, Cincinnati will enjoy a brief appearance in the national arts spotlight. This production also suggests the direction in which Cincinnati Opera is heading.
Let's hope Cincinnati is willing to go along for the ride.