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Dead Man Walking: The Opera, the Arts and Social Change


by Jerome Weeks 23 Apr 2009

The Fort Worth Opera begins its season this weekend, with Carmen on Saturday and La Cenerentola on Sunday. But the third opera the company is presenting has inspired a public panel on art, social change and the death penalty.

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rick-halperin

Rick Halperin in his office in SMU's history department

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The Fort Worth Opera begins its season this weekend, with Carmen on Saturday and La Cenerentola on Sunday. But the third opera the company is presenting has inspired a public panel on art, social change and the death penalty.

Rick Halperin directs Southern Methodist University’s Human Rights Education Program. In his classes, he assigns Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. Her efforts counseling two men who were executed by the state of Louisiana inspired a film and an opera, Dead Man Walking, which will receive its North Texas premiere in Fort Worth. Halperin will moderate a panel tonight at SMU on arts and human rights.

HALPERIN: “I think anything in a nonviolent way which can aid people to reflect on what is happening regarding the issue of human rights has great merit.”

But Halperin does not believe that means a work of art needs to spell out a political position. Quite the contrary.

HALPERIN: “The book is not an anti-death penalty book. I think the strength of the book is that it leaves the reader to make up his or her own mind.”

jaketerrence200

Composer Jake Heggie, left, with Texas-born playwright Terrence McNally, who wrote the libretto for the opera, Dead Man Walking

Halperin has strong ideas about the death penalty. For his part, Jake Heggie says he didn’t have strong feelings about it when he created Dead Man Walking as an opera (he’s currently working on Moby-Dick for the Dallas Opera.) Yet he was attracted to Sister Helen’s story for the same reasons that Halperin cites.

HEGGIE: “It wasn’t until I got involved in Sister Helen’s amazing journey that I really got swept up in it and came to my own conclusions. But that’s part of the drama of the piece is that search, which is much more interesting than just saying this is right and this is wrong.”

The arts, Heggie says, are more compelling when they dramatize than when they preach.

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