It's been 20 years since composer Jake Heggie hatched the idea for "Dead Man Walking" with playwright Terrence McNally over lunch in San Francisco.
"It was my first big opera," said Heggie, speaking by phone from his home in the Bay Area. "The librettist had never done a libretto. The director had never directed an opera. There were a lot of first-timers involved."
Most contemporary operas land a handful of performances before disappearing from the radar. Not "Dead Man Walking." Since its 2000 premiere at San Francisco Opera, the piece has amassed nearly 60 productions across five continents, making it the most performed contemporary opera of the 21st century. Minnesota Opera presides over the Twin Cities premiere Saturday at Ordway Music Theater.
"I knew from the moment we started that we had something special," Heggie said. "I was on fire with it, because I was telling a very compelling, electrifying story."
"Dead Man Walking" is based on the real-life experiences of Sister Helen Prejean, the Roman Catholic nun whose 1993 book about counseling death row inmates inspired the 1995 movie (starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon) in addition to Heggie's opera.
The story's international appeal, said Minnesota Opera President Ryan Taylor, probably has more to do with Sister Helen than the opera's central character, inmate Joseph de Rocher.
"Today we're all about doing easy things, in short bursts of information," said Taylor. "Sister Helen doesn't have all the answers, but she is willing to put herself in a space of uncertainty and make very difficult choices in order to do the right thing."
Another reason for the opera's success, continued Taylor, is Heggie's eclectic music incorporating the unmistakably American sounds of jazz, rock, gospel and folk.
"Jake took the best bits of each," said Taylor, "in order to craft a score that is so evocative of the story's time and place."
No preaching here
Heggie contends that "Dead Man Walking" isn't an anti-death-penalty opera, though the execution of its central character is certainly a harrowing moment.
"I am ashamed to say, when I started writing the opera I was rather ambivalent about the death penalty, like a lot of people," Heggie said. "I was even afraid to see the movie when it first came out, because I didn't want to be persuaded to have sympathy for someone who did something so heinous."
Immersing himself in Sister Helen's story changed all that. "I went into 'Dead Man Walking' very naive, but I eventually felt very passionate about it. I realized how asleep I was. We have no idea about the ripple effects of our actions as a society — on the parents and families involved."
Still, Heggie insists that "Dead Man Walking" is more about raising complicated questions than giving neat, definitive answers.
"The opera doesn't take a deliberate stance one way or the other," he said. "I like art that challenges me, that draws me in to consider new perspectives."
The fact that "Dead Man Walking" engages with issues other than the death penalty — including the prison system, trauma, the possibility of forgiveness — helps to explain the opera's popularity in countries such as Germany, Australia and South Africa, where capital punishment was long ago abolished.
"What surprised me was that this very American work, with very American vernacular and musical sound, appeals so much in other countries," said Heggie. "Who could have imagined that?"
Minnesota Opera will present a production first seen last year at Vancouver Opera, with Canadian director Joel Ivany in town to oversee the Twin Cities revival.
Like Heggie, Ivany doesn't see "Dead Man Walking" as an opera with a narrowly anti-death-penalty message. He sees broader themes relating to crime and punishment.
"There are people in this world who do bad things. Can they ever be redeemed? Or do we as a society just open a door, throw all the bad in there and close it? Do we have the power within ourselves to forgive?"
These "big societal issues," as Ivany put it, influence the production's dark, looming set designs by Erhard Rom. The claustrophobic interiors, cut with images of incarceration, were central to the production's success in a country where the death penalty was abolished in 1976.
Heggie has traveled the world to see dozens of "Dead Man Walking" stagings. He views the Ivany production as a "really bold and fascinating" interpretation, "right up there" with the best he has seen.
And although Twin Cities audiences have waited 18 years to see "Dead Man Walking," Taylor believes the opera could hardly have arrived at a better time.
"Everyone would acknowledge that there are very deep divides in our country's dialogue at the minute. You have to be on one side or the other, and you can't be uncertain, or you'll be run over by someone with a very strong, loud opinion.
" 'Dead Man Walking' is one of those pieces that encourage conversation in a respectful way, to really think about your own beliefs," Taylor said. "It just says stop and think, and consider the other side for a moment."
Terry Blain is a freelance classical music critic. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.