When the composer Jake Heggie wrote his first opera, “Dead Man Walking,” in the late 1990s, he never thought it would appear onstage at the Metropolitan Opera.
“The Met was not doing new opera, particularly; it was not featuring or focusing them,” he said. “It just seemed a distant dream.”
But next week, 23 years after its premiere at San Francisco Opera, “Dead Man Walking,” with a score by Heggie and a libretto by Terrence McNally, will finally come to the Met — opening a season in which contemporary works are front and center as the company tries to attract new audiences.
The Met, which is grappling with weak ticket revenues and other financial problems, is placing a big bet on modern opera: Works by living composers, which recently have outsold the classics, make up about a third of the coming season. And although it’s still early, ticket sales for the first three weeks of the season are so far about 12 percent higher compared with the same period last year, the company said.
Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, said he was drawn to “Dead Man Walking,” one of the few contemporary operas to have found a place in the repertory worldwide, in part because of its record of success.
“Bringing it to the Met was overdue,” Gelb said. “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.”
The opera — based on the 1993 memoir by Sister Helen Prejean, which was also adapted into the 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn — portrays Sister Helen’s struggle to save the soul of a convicted murderer.
Ivo van Hove’s austere staging for the Met opens with a short film depicting the attack by Joseph De Rocher and his brother on a teenage boy and girl in Louisiana. The focus shifts to Sister Helen, who has been corresponding with De Rocher, now a death-row inmate, and sets out to meet him at the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola.
The Met has assembled a starry cast, including the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who is singing the role of Sister Helen for the fourth time, and the bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, who performed the role of De Rocher at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2019. The mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, who originated the role of Sister Helen in the premiere, makes a cameo as De Rocher’s mother, and the soprano Latonia Moore plays Sister Rose, while the Met’s music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conducts.
DiDonato said that the opera resonated not because of its discussion of the death penalty but because it was a “love story.”
“It’s an opera about looking at the dark side of who we are, or who others are, and asking, ‘And now how do we relate?’” she said. “Now how do we connect with each other? Do I dismiss you outright because of who you are or what you did or what you stand for? Or is there a way I can still open my heart and connect to you?”
“It becomes,” she added, “a question of ultimately who is worthy of love and redemption.”
Van Hove, who made his Met debut last season with Mozart’s “Don Giovanni,” said he was drawn to direct “Dead Man Walking” because it was a “very American story,” combining individual struggles with broader societal questions. In preparation for the opera, which was originally scheduled for the 2020-21 season but was delayed by the pandemic, he said he had read Sister Helen’s book but did not watch the movie.
He stripped “Dead Man Walking” of many of its traditional elements, including partitions, steel bars and shackles. In his production, Sister Helen and De Rocher sometimes roam freely around the set, designed by Jan Versweyveld, with no barriers between them. Live video, a van Hove hallmark, is widely used, with onstage cameramen following around singers, whose faces are projected onto a large screen.
That approach, van Hove said, is meant to highlight the story’s emotion. “A lot of the opera is situated in the minds of the people,” he added. “This mental space became, for us, like a prison.”
Some of the singers initially struggled with the minimalist style, including McKinny, who had been accustomed to wearing shackles throughout the opera.
“In the beginning it was like, wow, it’s hard for me to understand the isolation of death row if we don’t have death-row elements,” he said. “But actually, this stage is so open and so nothing, that it feels isolating on its own, in a more emotional and psychological space.”
Van Hove has reworked other elements of the opera, including a scene in which fighting erupts as Sister Helen enters the prison. That moment is typically portrayed as a scuffle, but in this production, it unfolds as part of a basketball game, with cameramen moving among the inmates.
On a recent morning, male members of the Met chorus took their places onstage and prepared to rehearse at half-speed — stretching, doing squats and jumping up and down. In performance, the scene lasts only 50 seconds but is pivotal, van Hove said.
“For Helen, when she enters that prison, she enters hell,” he said. “We feel in the audience the visceral aggressiveness and the visceral violence that is in the prison there all the time.”
Graham, who plays De Rocher’s mother, singing an emotional plea before the pardon board, said that the opera “really got into my DNA” after she sang the role of Sister Helen in 2000. She avoided the work in the years that followed because she found it too painful; her father died during the original run. But more recently, she has taken up the role of the mother, seeing it is a way for her to reconnect with the piece.
“Getting into it from this role is almost like the other side of the coin,” she said. “Sister Helen has to keep it together and be strong for everybody. But Mama gets to wail and cry and holler. She gets to let it all hang out. In that way, it’s very cathartic.”
Even though the opera, with more than 75 productions, has been performed in many of the world’s leading opera houses, Heggie said he still got emotional going to the Met for rehearsals.
“I couldn’t have imagined when we wrote the piece that it would have this kind of life or power,” he said. “And so to be in the room with these literally genius creators was a real jolt. I just felt electricity in the room. I felt nervousness. I felt great power and I felt a lot of ideas vibrating.”