Sister Helen Prejean: I looked at his face and I thought if you murdered somebody you had a mean face. I couldn't believe how human his face was.
Rhiannon Giddens: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code, back after a long break. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
Jake Heggie: We see the very worst of humankind and human nature, and then immediately we're surrounded by youth and optimism and joy.
Rhiannon Giddens: Every episode, we shine a spotlight on a single aria, so we can see it from every angle. Today, it's this journey from one of the great American operas, Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie.
Joyce DiDonato: From the very beginning, the clock is ticking towards the inevitable outcome. The clock is ticking towards the execution.
Rhiannon Giddens: My friends, it has been forever. And I don't know about you, but these days I feel like every passing year is basically a whole lifetime. Since we were all last together, I've been feeding my opera habit in an unusual way. by following the opera Omar around the country. I wrote Omar with composer Michael Ables, and getting to see each different cast and audience respond to the incredible story of Omar Ibn Said, sold at the age of 37 from his homeland of Senegal and ending up enslaved for over 50 years in North Carolina, it has been a complete honor.
And as strange as it was to be in the audience rather than up on stage, you know, it cinched for me the importance of opera as a contemporary art form. I know you agree, because you're here, listening to a show that's all about the power of music and how these stories reflect and reverberate through every corner of our lives, ranging from the personal to the philosophical.
And sometimes... Today's aria touches on all three. The best way to tell you the story of Dead Man Walking is for me to introduce you to Sister Helen Prejean. Sister Helen followed her calling into the Catholic Church when she was 18 years old, and she's devoted her life to this calling ever since. In the early 1980s, she was living and working in marginalized communities in Louisiana when, out of nowhere, she was asked to be the spiritual advisor to death row prisoner Patrick Saunier.
Patrick and his brother had been convicted of rape and murder, and Sister Helen took on the challenge of supporting him spiritually and emotionally through the final months of his life. Sister Helen wrote about her journey to the execution chamber with Patrick, and others, in her best selling book Dead Man Walking.
It's a captivating and very powerful story, not just about the grace and love that Sister Helen has shown the men that she's advised in their darkest moments, but also about the death penalty in America. What it accomplishes? And what it doesn't, from the perspective of someone who's seen it all from up close.
This story inspired a national conversation, and it captured the imagination of a lot of people, including composer Jake Heggie and playwright and librettist Terrence McNally. It became their first opera, premiering in 2000 in San Francisco to a sold out run. To this day, Dead Man Walking remains one of the most performed American operas.
I think one of the reasons this story is still so gripping is because the questions at its heart are still very much alive in America today. What is the appropriate response to murder in Cold Blood? Is an eye for an eye justice? Or is it vengeance? Is redemption even possible? And what does it really look like?
These are questions that Sister Helen has been asking both privately and publicly for decades. And today, we'll hear how Jake Heggie has set these questions to music. The aria, This Journey, takes place early in the opera, when Sister Helen is driving to Angola Prison to meet the condemned man for the first time.
She's nervous. But she's bolstered by her mission to bring this man closer to God. Mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato sings the role of Sister Helen, and not for the first time.
Joyce DiDonato: I first sang her in 2002 at New York City Opera, and so we're going on 21 years of my singing her. This will be my fifth time over my career.
Rhiannon Giddens: Sister Helen herself is here, and pretty jazzed to be on the show.
Sister Helen Prejean: I hear this is... That's the top mama of all these little podcasts, right?
Rhiannon Giddens: Really, she is just too kind, especially considering she wrote the top mama of all these little books.
Sister Helen Prejean: One funny thing mama said, after the book Dead Man Walking came out and everybody's beginning to read this book, she said, now Helen, you're famous, for God's sake, don't do anything stupid.
And I was delighted when it soon got in the vernacular, Dead Man Walking, because it's about people waking up about this issue. And it's the passion of my life.
Rhiannon Giddens: As for the opera, it became a passion of composer Jake Heggie's life as well.
Jake Heggie: Terrence McNally wanted to do a big American drama. And he said, look, I have a list of 10 ideas.
And the first thing he said was Dead Man Walking. And I just remember I got this shiver through my entire body. My hair stood on end. I could feel and hear music. And I said, stop right there. That's it. It felt so right.
Rhiannon Giddens: One quick note. In the opera, the character of the man on death row becomes a kind of combination of a couple of the men that Sister Helen advised.
So while you'll hear Sister Helen speaking about the real life Patrick Saunier, you'll hear Jake and Joyce talking about the opera character, whose name is Joseph Desrochers. Alright, I think it's time to join Sister Helen as she makes her way to Angola Prison. Here's this journey from Dead Man Walking.
Jake Heggie: I was at home and the phone rang and I picked it up and uh, this voice says, I'd like to speak to Jake Hagee. And I said, this is Jake. And she said, this is Sister Helen Prejean and I understand you want to make an opera out of Dead Man Walking. Is that right, Jake? And I said, yeah. That's, that's right. And she goes, you know what I said to that, Jake?
I said, of course, we're going to do an opera on Dead Man Walking. But Jake, I don't know boot scat about opera. So you're going to have to educate me. She said, you don't write all this atonal stuff, right? We're going to have a tune we can hum, right? And I said, yes, I'm a very lyric composer. I like big tunes, soaring melodies, arching lyricism.
And she said, and the only other thing I request. Jake is because I know when you adapt something, things are going to change. She says, the one thing I ask is that it remain a story of redemption.
Joyce DiDonato: So sister Helen Prejean is an elementary school teacher and she has grown up in a white middle class neighborhood in New Orleans. Hasn't really had to struggle.
Sister Helen Prejean: My growing up, it couldn't have been a more loving family in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, loving mom and daddy, very affectionate, big two story house, five acres, playing outside, always outside, and then going to a Catholic school with nuns who taught me, but very unaware of justice.
Joyce DiDonato: Never really confronted with poverty, never confronted with social injustice.
Sister Helen Prejean: Naive, totally unconscious, prejudiced. Not taking into account the gravitational pull of generation after generation of poverty and lack of opportunity.
Joyce DiDonato: She had an easy faith. Up until this point. And the call to religious life was kind of easy for her.
Sister Helen Prejean: I joined when I was 18. I really knew, I went, this is what I wanna do. Sat between Mom and Daddy all the way to the Novicia to New Orleans and we said the rosary together. I cried all the way. In those days, it was really, really strict.
I was never going to be in my family home again. Got to the novitiate, wiped my tears, walked in and said, I can't think about mom and daddy right now. I just got to get into my new life. It was a life of prayer. It was a life of study and to learn how to be a good nun. Long time to get the nun's walk, because I kind of had a freewheeling way of walking, swinging my arms around and all.
Jake Heggie: You know, sometimes people have this idea of a nun as this very sort of solemn, quiet, devout, prayerful. And she is the opposite of that. She is outspoken. She is on fire with purpose and energy. And that allowed me, musically, to explore a much wider range.
Sister Helen Prejean: So, I started teaching in the white suburbs and then moved into the St.
Thomas Housing Projects and lived among African American people in the city. And I saw the other America. All the rules were different. I saw the suffering of what it meant not to have health care and to have to go sit with a sick child in the charity hospital. At two o'clock in the morning until some tired little intern's gonna see a sick child, I saw what was happening with the young men being picked up by the police.
Louisiana had the highest incarceration rate in the whole nation, and how race played a part. I'm learning all those systems. I could see all this that was happening, and it's while I was in that environment and working at a place called Hope House. That one day I got an invitation, Hey, Sister Helen, you want to be a pen pal to somebody on death row?
And I thought, yeah, sure, I'll write letters. I didn't have any experience in prison at all with people. I didn't know what he had done yet, and I figured in time he'd reveal that to me.
Jake Heggie: So the opera begins with a haunting overture that leads us in and starts to set up some of the motifs that I will use later in the opera.
And suddenly we are In the woods at night and two young people run on stage. They've been skinny dipping and they are about to make love. They're totally vulnerable, sort of like in the Garden of Eden almost, and that's when these two brothers Come on stage and rape the girl and murder both. And we see Joseph Desrochers commit this heinous crime.
Joyce DiDonato: There's no doubt about the guilt of Joseph Desrochers.
And then Sister Helen enters the scene singing a spiritual.
Jake Heggie: He will gather us around a cappella.
Joyce DiDonato: And then we see her at work with her school kids, singing the same sort of spiritual.
Jake Heggie: Sister Helen is teaching this hymn to all the children that come to Hope House where she works. We see the very worst of humankind and human nature, and then immediately we're surrounded by youth and optimism and joy with the children.
Joyce DiDonato: But Sister Helen's quite distracted, and it comes to find out that The man she's been writing with, the rapist and murderer, Joseph Desrochers, has asked her to come visit him at Angola.
There's something very different to writing a weekly letter and actually going to Angola and meeting him face to face. Because she knows, in a way, once you step through. Those gates and you start to commit to a friendship. There's responsibility there.
Sister Helen Prejean: And then right away he sent these forms that he said, Well, look, I'm a Catholic and you're a nun.
Would you be my spiritual advisor? And so I fill out the form. Yeah, sure.
Joyce DiDonato: So this is where the tipping point starts in her life, where the idea of being a good and faithful servant, a good nun, a good teacher, a good human being. It's time to put her money where her mouth is, really, and she's now going to be faith.
Jake Heggie: She's determined to go, and we transition to the next scene, which is the drive to Angola, which is where Sister Helen is now on her own in the car. and faced with the journey ahead.
Sister Helen Prejean: Well, it was a long ride. It's two and a half hours to Angola, the prison from New Orleans, and it's a Louisiana ride. You know, fields, there's a lot of farmers, there are cows along the way, there are trees, there are swamps. After you go through Baton Rouge, then you're really moving out into the rural part of Louisiana.
And so there are hills, very windy road, going through those tunica hills.
Jake Heggie: I tried to write music for the car ride that reflects Sister Helen not knowing what to expect. At first there's a lightness to the score because she's in the car, it's moving, I'm trying to capture that forward momentum and motion, which she also feels inside.
Joyce DiDonato: And what we hear in the orchestra, this da da da da da da da da da da da da, part of it is the sense of the car, the journey that's going forward. But we also have the sense that from the very beginning, the clock is ticking towards the execution. The clock is ticking towards the inevitable outcome. And so you'll feel this propulsion and this drive in the orchestra underneath as she gets in her car and starts making this long journey from her home to Angola.
She begins to reflect a little bit on that choice. To become a bride of Christ. She even says, you know, he was a hothead, but so am I.
So she recognizes sort of the subversive Jesus, not one that's tucked away and and meant to be just reverenced and worshiped, but one that is flesh and blood and alive and is doing work on earth. And what starts to emerge is that we really have a passionate woman on our hands. It's somebody who is probably getting in over their head, but going in and not looking back because she feels called to do this.
And then it comes to mind for her to reflect on this man that she's going to see, Joseph Desrochers. And here we start to hear this. This theme,
Joseph desrochers, his prisoner number 95281, you'll hear this theme
Sister Helen Prejean: I don't know what to expect, except there's this man, and I've said I'm gonna be a spiritual advisor, and one part of me was just really glad to be awake about some of these really significant things. And to be open, to really be open, I'm not going to go and wag my finger at him and preach at him. I really just want to accompany him.
Pictures and letters don't tell you how a man can do a thing like that. She hasn't yet.
Joyce DiDonato: She's fully encountered the horror because she hasn't met the parents yet. She hasn't seen the photos. She hasn't been face to face looking in his eyes. And she says, you know, I work with, with poor kids, but this is something different. And then you see her start to work through this.
Yeah, but he's still one of God's children.
And this is going to be. The... spinal cord for her. This is her column of faith that she returns to time and time again in the opera. He is still a child of God. We start to get this propulsion of quarter notes. The orchestration
is picking up speed, the tempo is moving, and there's Signs on the side of the road saying, don't despair, you're almost there, Angola's coming. And she's like, I'm not despairing, but I'm melting. It's so hot down in Louisiana. And you realize that she's driving faster and faster.
Jake Heggie: It develops and gets a little bigger and heavier when she starts going deeper into thinking about meeting the man. The harmony starts to get a little denser. She starts speeding because she's nervous and thinking about what's ahead. And it starts to race and race and race and suddenly a motor cop enters because she's been speeding.
Sister Helen Prejean: , There's a blue light behind me and
I went, Dang! Speeding.
The state trooper stops me. Then he sees... When you hand him the insurance form, he goes, you a nun? Yes, officer. He said, I never gave a nun no ticket before.
But in fact, he had already written a ticket. There have been a number of encounters with state troopers on the way to Angola, uh, because I do have a heavy foot.
Jake Heggie: And then she's back on the drive again, and we get back into that motor rhythm of the car down the road. And all the way through this, I wanted to capture musically.
That she is full of doubts and questions, but she's also full of hope, that there's something else that's calling her, that's pulling her. There's a sense of a longer line, emotionally, musically, that is taking us inevitably forward.
Joyce DiDonato: As she's driving past exit 75 on the highway. That would be the exit she would normally take to go home, and she has this beautiful remembrance of her family.
I was very happy there, but I wanted more. I wanted something more in my life, and I wanted this. I wanted this journey.
Jake Heggie: Then all of a sudden she has this realization there's going to be everything before this moment. And my life, and everything that comes after this moment, it's that dividing line.
Sister Helen Prejean: You turn down this highway 66, it dead ends. into Angola, the prison, which is an 18, 000 acre prison made up of former plantations.
And just that dread, though, when you pull up, because you know that behind these gates are 5, 000 human beings, most of whom have life sentences, most of whom are never going to walk out of there.
And I will never, ever. Forget the first time I was so scared because I knew I was out of my element when you do drive up to the gates You have to park outside and then you got to go through the visitor center. You got to go through security You got to go through machines that do these x rays and my heart was gone then, you know, they Pat search you, make sure you don't have weapons on you, all this kind of stuff, or drugs.
And this guard started taking me through these different gates to take me to go see this man.
There's no soft sounds in a prison. It's cement floors. and steel, and it was the clanging of the bars. And so I follow this guard, we go through the third set of gates, and then I see in red block letters, right above this green door with bars and a little window on it, Death Row. And my heart just dropped because I thought to myself, oh my God, every person sitting in a cage in this tier has been condemned to die.
And to be on death row is to be looked upon as Really disposable human waste. What must that be like to be so hated and despised? And of course, what that draws forth from me is, when they see my face, they're going to see dignity and somebody that can recognize that they're more than that one terrible crime.
And most of the people I've been with on death row have, in fact, been guilty.
Jake Heggie: So the journey aria proper starts out of silence. And all of a sudden, she starts on a held note. It's her making a decision to go forward into the journey. And we feel the cellos with this motor rhythm underneath her. Da da da da da da da da da da da da da da da.
Which is not only the feeling of the road and the driving, but also her heart, her own excitement and nervousness about the journey ahead. We firmly establish this three note theme.
That's one of the main motifs that will follow her throughout the opera.
Sister Helen Prejean: Then they locked me in a room and said, I'll go get your man for you. And then I began to be nervous about him because I thought, hmm, anybody can, you know, write nice letters, but I'm going to actually be in his presence with somebody who has murdered somebody.
And uh, what will the conversation be like? What is he actually going to be like?
Jake Heggie: She repeats the word journey quite a few times, and each time it has a little bit different meaning.
Joyce DiDonato: This is a journey to Christ, a journey to God, a journey to love.
Jake Heggie: This journey to myself, to my Jesus, to this man, this journey to the truth, was a great gift that Terrence McNally gave me.
To have that repetition, because each time is a different exploration, a different question, that is coming to her in the moment. So a chance to explore it a little bit differently, melodically and rhythmically.
When she gets to thinking about the letter that he wrote to her, I'm going to die, he writes me, the rhythm suddenly changes. It's a different sort of a feeling. It moves to a da da.
Joyce DiDonato: She's wondering, you know, does he want me to help him to die? Is he afraid of death?
Jake Heggie: These are all such amazing lines to set, and each one of them is a question, so the end of the line is going to go up. And so each ascending line takes us to a new point. a new question, a new sense of, how am I going to do this? It allows me to create an arch with the melody, going up, going up, and then finding an answer.
And maybe the answer is another question.
Sister Helen Prejean: And And then I heard his leg irons on the floor, dragging across the floor as he was being accompanied by the guard. And for the first time I could hear, it was a Cajun accent. And then they bring him in. I was separated by this heavy mesh metal screen, and it's the first time I'm looking through that heavy mesh screen right into his face.
And he was smiling, and he said, Sister, you came. A lot of people say they're gonna visit, and they never do. And I looked at his face. And I thought if you murdered somebody, you had a mean face. I couldn't believe how human his face was.
Joyce DiDonato: We get this sense of yearning, and it slowly, step by step, builds in height and in length.
And you really get the sense of desire to find her way through this. It's difficult, there's dissonance involved, there's long, held notes. that go over an undulating harmony underneath in the orchestra, but all of it is leading Into this final idea of this journey to Christ.
Sister Helen Prejean: We had two hours and it was just never break. We spoke. It was like current moving in water. It was like I shared my life with him or what it was like at Hope House and, and he talked about the small cell and we hit it off. We connected as human beings with each other. And I looked down at his hands at one point, and I remember thinking, Whatever he has done, he is worth more than the single worst act of his life.
Jake Heggie: And finally, the climactic phrase, going back to her source of strength through this whole thing, which is her faith, this journey to my christ. And that is a big, soaring line up on high Ab's, G's. And then a denouement at the very end, back to the motor rhythm and the cellos.
Joyce DiDonato: And at the end, she goes back to Joseph de Rocher. She says his prison number, 95281. And then she's confronted with death.
Sister Helen Prejean: I put my hand up against that Mesh screen, as close as I could get to touch him, and I just said, Pat, I'll be back.
You got me. You're stuck with this nun. I'm gonna be back. It was a commitment, a deep commitment, that I would accompany him to the end.
Joyce DiDonato: She ends the aria in prayer, a very simple prayer, very melodic, where she asks for help to be strong and to be human.
Jake Heggie: And then it ends with an amen. On a fermata, the beginning of the aria started with a fermata on the word this, journey, and the end ends with a fermata on amen, and it kind of bookends that whole aria.
Joyce DiDonato: It's just about the last moment of repose that she will have in the opera. We have this sense that, that she can't turn back.
Sister Helen Prejean: And in fact, I arranged my life that once a month.
I'd make the drive to go to Angola, and he looked forward to the visit, and we would write each other in between as well, so he knew I was there. So it was two and a half years of knowing Pat.
Jake Heggie: Towards the end, he confesses to her, because he realizes... It's his last chance to actually tell the truth of what happened. And when he tells the truth, and she says, you did a terrible thing, but you're still a child of God.
And he breaks down. There is a new level of trust and understanding and openness between them. And he even says to her, could anyone forgive me? And isn't that kind of what redemption is about?
Joyce DiDonato: Every time she meets him, she meets him as a human being, not as a monster, not as a murderer, not as the worst of society. She'll still hold him accountable, but as a human being. And they forge a relationship that is deep in their respect for each other. Despite what he did, and despite who she is, ultimately it's a journey into deeper love.
Sister Helen Prejean: And then that last walk with him, uh, when the warden comes and he's saying, Okay, Sonia, time to go. And because it was electrocution, they had shaved his head, they put a diaper on him. You're just a package. You're just a clod. You're not a human being, and we're gonna kill you. It's really the weirdest thing in the world because you're with somebody who's fully alive talking to you, and you know in your mind they're gonna be fully dead.
But I knew my job, and it was to be there. It was to be with him and to walk with him and say the words from The prophet Isaiah, I am with you. I've called you by your name. I wanted him to have a sense of his dignity and God's love for him.
Jake Heggie: I think that Sister Helen develops a deep affection and appreciation for the person she sees inside Joseph, who's had a very, very difficult life and who went down a very dark path because of poverty, because of many other adverse elements in his life. She develops a real affection for him, for the person that she sees inside, the valuable human being who did a terrible, terrible thing, and should not be let off the hook for the terrible thing that he did, but doesn't deserve to die for it, and I think the love she feels for him is the deepest and most important kind of love, which is genuine friendship and caring.
And he feels that for her as well.
Joyce DiDonato: We finally see it at the end of the opera, that she takes this full journey with Joseph and stays by his side and is the face of love for him at the end.
Sister Helen Prejean: And when we did that walk... I leaned over, and I kissed him on the back, and I said, Pat, remember me to God. He turned around, his voice was like this whisper. He goes, Sister Ellen, I will.
And so they strap him in, they work very quickly, strapping his legs, strapping around his waist. And I said, Pat, you're not gonna die without seeing somebody who loves you, and I'll be the face of Christ. You look at me. You look at me. When they do this, I'll be there for you. And he did. Mine was the last face he saw.
His last words were to me, I love you. And mine back to him, I love you. And then he killed him.
We are in deep mystery when it comes to death and what's on the other side of death. And all I know is that love is what counts in this life. And I knew that I had been a loving presence to him and he was a loving presence to me. Holding each other up, I guess, feet firmly planted in midair together. But, uh, I treasure that.
Joyce DiDonato: The one thing I know about this opera is you don't encounter it, let alone sing the role of Sister Helen and emerge as the same person as when you went in. In my case, I'm much less comfortable turning a blind eye to things. And this is the power of art, art either depicting life or inspiring life, because When I say the words, he's still a human being.
He still is a child of God. And I sing that to an audience. I am accountable for that in my own life as well.
Jake Heggie: What I hope is that the opera touches people and they feel different or changed after they experience it. And the magic is that in that audience. of whether it's a hundred people or three or four thousand people.
You don't know who the people are around you necessarily. You don't know what their views are politically. You have no idea and yet you sit there together. As a community to experience a human drama and now there's room for a dialogue, it offers you the opportunity to see what it's like to walk in someone else's shoes in a surprising journey.
If I hope anything, it's that people are open enough to take all of that in and if people feel changed in some way, touched, moved, what more can I hope for?
Sister Helen Prejean: We have gassed and shot and electrocuted and lethally injected over 1, 500 human beings in this country thus far, and it's still happening. What does it accomplish?
In the end there's another dead human being, another mother. is gonna mourn and bury her child, and where are we as a people? Society does have a right to be safe from people who are really violent. So, for them to lose their freedom and for them to be incarcerated. But that's very far removed from, because you kill, we're gonna kill you.
We need to begin to have restorative justice and not this retributive, we're going to make you suffer and you end up being less human than you were when you went in. And that's the passion of my life in the remaining years I have left. To bring people there because they have no way of accessing this directly because it's a secret ritual and it's done behind prison walls.
And you know, when you have something in secret in society and you don't see it, art is what we've got to open up the curtain, to go into places otherwise that people are never going to go.
Rhiannon Giddens: Sister Helen Prejean, mezzo soprano Joyce DiDonato, and composer Jake Heggy. Decoding this journey from Heggy's Dead Man Walking. Joyce will be back to sing it for you after the break.
When Sister Helen Prejean gets in her car to drive to Angola Prison on a sweltering day, she has no idea what awaits her. All she has are questions, questions and an unwavering commitment to seeing the humanity in every person. Here's Joyce DiDonato as Sister Helen, singing this journey from Dead Man Walking.
That was Joyce DiDonato and her spellbinding performance of This Journey from Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally. Both Joyce and the real life sister Helen teach us everything there is to know about faith and love. Redemption and Love.
Next time, one of the most gorgeous tenor arias of all time.
Fred Plotkin: The sigh is not a sigh of anguish, it's a sigh of love, and it's so beautifully carried in that music.
Rhiannon Giddens: Una fortiva lagrima from Donizetti's L'elesir d'amore. Aria Code is a co production of WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced, edited, and scored by Maren Lazian.
Mixing and sound design by Matt Boynton of Ultraviolet Audio, and original music by Hannes Brown. I'd like to give a huge thanks for help recording this episode to the Irish World Academy of Music and Dance at the University of Limerick, where I'm currently an artist in residence. Oh, and in case you're wondering what Sister Helen thinks of AriaCode now that she's actually been on the show...
Sister Helen Prejean: Totally cool.
Rhiannon Giddens: I'm Rhiannon Giddens. See you next time.