Philanthropist Franci Neely was in good company in New York City on Sept. 26 for the Metropolitan Opera’s opening of the highly anticipated Dead Man Walking. A galaxy of stars came out for the acclaimed production, including Anne Hathaway, Whoopi Goldberg, Sigourney Weaver, acting power couple Angela Bassett and husband Courtney B. Vance, Al Roker, Marcia Gay Harden, Peter Sarsgaard, Patrick Stewart, Jon Hamm, Ben Stiller, Tim Robbins, and others. Everyone seemed to want to get a glimpse of the most performed opera of the 21st century.
“I was at the opening of Dead Man Walking at the Metropolitan Opera. It was brilliant,” Franci Neely says of the show that premiered at the San Francisco Opera more than two decades ago but finally made it to the Met.
Based on the powerful true tale of Sister Helen Prejean and the death row inmate she was spiritually advising at Louisiana’s state penitentiary, Neely says she was moved by the opera, which focuses on the redemptive power of love.
“Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen, Ryan McKinny as the death row inmate, and Susan Graham as his mother were sublime,” Neely says. Interestingly, Graham sang the role of Helen Prejean in the work’s 2000 premiere.
Neely isn’t the only showgoer who enjoyed Dead Man Walking.
“Its appeal is no surprise,” reads The New York Times review. “It is based on a bestselling book and award-winning film; Jake Heggie’s soaring music is easily digested, and the storytelling of Terrence McNally’s libretto is crystal clear; its emotions are passionate.
“A smartly airy production at the Met.”
The Washington Post wrote, “Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato shines in Jake Heggie’s operatic adaptation of Sister Helen Prejean’s bestselling memoir.”
The Financial Times wrote, “The music is lyrical, with a throb that suits the subject and also a yearning and wistfulness that bring out great feeling, but the singers have to express the awful anguish that is the core sensation. DiDonato has her usual lustrous sound, with a slight understatement that suggests Sister Helen’s doubts about her purpose and the possibility of getting De Rocher to be honest. McKinny, from falsetto voice to near-shouting power, walks the balance of claiming his innocence while also needing Sister Helen’s spiritual guidance.”
Neely, a close friend of Dead Man Walking’s creator, Jake Heggie, says the opera reminded her of an experience she had meeting a death row inmate named Dominique Green.
“I met Dominique in Texas before he was executed by the retributive state of Texas,” says Neely, who spent more than two decades as a law partner. “I said a prayer for Dominique, who I believe was unfairly executed — but nonetheless, was a man who became filled with grace, in large part because of people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. If there were only more Archbishop Tutus and Sister Helen Prejeans in the world.”
Prejean penned her memoir in 1993 and is pleased to see how art can transform hearts.
“I don’t follow the opera world closely, but when Jake told me, ‘Helen, it’s going to be at the Met, and it’s going to be opening night,’ I knew we had arrived. I’m especially pleased because it allows us to reach an even wider segment of society,” Prejean told Playbill. “The only way we’re ever going to change things is by awakening the people, and since they can’t directly experience the executions, the main way we have to wake them up is through art.”
Prejean added that when Heggie and Terrence McNally approached her about turning her book into an opera, she was enthusiastic despite not knowing much about the classic Italian performance art form.
The story had previously been turned into a 1995 film starring Sean Penn as death row inmate Matthew Poncelet. Susan Sarandon snagged an Academy Award for Best Actress and a Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance in 1996 for her portrayal of Prejean.
Both the book and movie have become part of the curriculum for many colleges, high schools, and religious confirmation classes.
“I said, ‘Great! Bring it on,’” Prejean shared with Playbill. “And when Jake called me, I said, ‘I don’t know boo scat about opera. Just make me two promises: One, it can’t be atonal. We’ve got to have melodies that people can hum. And two, redemption has to be at the heart of the story.’ And he said, ‘You got it.’ Now, I see that opera can convey this story in such a beautiful way because it’s both live drama and music that instructs the heart. It brings us to places we don’t even know we have.”
Expanding opera’s reach to move diverse audiences is a clear goal of the Metropolitan Opera this season.
Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, Peter Gelb, told The New York Times, “Bringing it to the Met was overdue. It symbolizes the efforts that we’re making to really transform the art form and to appeal to a much broader audience base that we have to appeal to for opera to succeed and ultimately survive.”
Broadening opera’s scope is something Franci Neely is also committed to as an enthusiastic opera patron.
In addition to attending Heggie’s Dead Man Walking debut at the Met, Neely has graciously underwritten another piece by the composer titled Intelligence, which launched at Houston Grand Opera on Oct. 20 and ran through Nov. 3.
Heggie, who has a penchant for choosing complex, true subject matter, penned Intelligence about two women who worked as spies for the Union during the American Civil War.
“Anybody can appreciate opera,” Franci Neely says. “There’s a lot of commissioning of new work with very, very current themes, timely themes. And at least, to my knowledge, that’s attracting young people, diverse people, people who don’t necessarily have any track record with the opera. So don’t be intimidated. It’s really wonderful.”
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