After its premiere nearly 20 years ago, critics described “Dead Man Walking” as “opera’s first big move into the real world.” Based on the nonfiction book by Sister Helen Prejean, the opera dives into questions about capital punishment, our justice system and where religion fits into our understanding of those.
I spoke with both Prejean and Emily Fons, the soprano playing her in the Kentucky Opera production of “Dead Man Walking,” which premieres on Friday.
You can listen in the audio player above.
Highlights from our conversations:
Fons on her big question for Prejean:
“Something that is important to me about telling this story is that, you know right now, I can go on YouTube, I can go online, I can hear her speak, I can read her books, I can meet her at this point in her journey, but I’m so curious to know what she remembers about the very beginning of things.
“What it felt like to get letters in the mail from a death row inmate, what it felt like to drive there for the first time — how brave did [Prejean] feel walking into the penitentiary the first day?”
Prejean on how she felt entering the prison the first time:
“Scared out of my cotton-picking mind. I had never been in any situation like that before and understand, in New Orleans, a very Catholic city, nuns are big — sometimes you go into a restaurant and you don’t pay for your own meal. ‘Hey sister, how are you doing?’ Just deep, deep Catholic roots in the city.
“So then you walk into the Louisiana State Penitentiary. And you’re walking down a part of the prison and people are calling out — and there’s a great song about it in the opera — ‘Woman on the tier, woman on the tier…’”
Fons on how the opera deals with the topic of capital punishment:
“The opera and the book, they try to show you stories — human beings — and leave you to discuss and think and form opinions. Something that really rang to me that I heard Sister Helen say in an interview was that the American people are not wedded to the death penalty, we just don’t talk about it or think about it, which is horrible. We’re talking about life and death. For that to be an issue that each and every one of us hasn’t thought deeply about seems very sad.”