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Sister Helen, why are you in Montreal?

Transcript of a conversation in the lobby of the Montreal Shereton, where we talked while a murder of Air France flight attendants pushed us off the sofa.

Were you involved in this production in any creative way?

I was more directly involved in the movie, in shaping the story with Tim [Robbins] and Susan [Sarandon]. But when they told me they wanted to do an opera, I talked with Jake Heggie on the phone and I said Jake, two things—because I don’t know much about opera—that the theme is redemption and that the melodies are singable, not that atonal stuff… because I couldn’t connect with things that are too dissonant. And he said, “I write music for the human voice and so that is what this will be.”

Do you attend all the premieres?

No, I can’t. They go all over the world. I didn’t go to the one in Vienna, but I was at the one in Dresden; I was at the one in Calgary; I was at the one in Adelaide, Pittsburg, Cincennati…

So what brought you to Montreal?

One of the things I’ve found out is that, because it’s modern people don’t know about it, and when I come and do interviews and tell the story, it can start a buzz about it. Not everybody gets to interview Madame Butterfly. So I try to tell the story of it. And Jake said—wait, do you know how the opera came to be?

Kind of… I actually have this great quote from Lotfi Mansouri, the director of the San Francisco opera: “I’ve always wanted to prove that to everybody that opera is an artform that can deal with any topic.” So my understanding was that he’d originally given Heggie a different topic, a French story, and Heggie sat down with Terrence McNally and they made an alternative list with Dead Man Walking at the top. So they chose it themselves?

That’s right. And I think Jake had brought this… it was the Millenium, so it was some French bubbly thing… and neither of them went for it, so they separated for about six months. But Lotfi kept calling them and telling them to get together again. And Terrence saw Dead Man Walking while they were in that hiatus. And I met them, see, when we did the first press thing at the Chase Manhattan bank.

That was the first time you met them?

Yeah, that was the first time in person… and we were all telling our own story to the press, and that’s how we put it together. And Jake says that when Terrence read Dead Man Walking, every hair on his head stood up—and on his neck—and music started coming in his ears.

Is he a hairy man?

Ha! Not particularly… but the contrast, the steel doors clanking, the toughness and the tenderness; and that’s how it began. And they wrote it kind of seamlessly; Terrence went and wrote the libretto in six weeks I think… you know that kind of photography they have now that shows that when lighting strikes it doesn’t just strike in one place, but there’s an opposite current that comes from the ground and draws the lighting down? I think that when you have a creative imaginative idea it draws the lighting down and—snap!—it just took off.

Maybe that’s what people mean when they talk about hitting the zeitgeist? But you’re confirming what I thought, that you weren’t really involved in the opera. Because you were so involved in the movie, you were a script consultant and you worked with Tim Robbins…

On every line. On every scene!

And Tim also did a stage version, which I assume was based on that script?

Yeah. And it’s for young people, for universities and high schools. And he wrote the stage play of it.

It happened incredibly fast, you know? The hardback came out in 1993—it’s the 20th anniversary this year and they’re going to reissue it—the paperback in 1994. And Susan Sarandon is the one who got it; a friend gave it to her while she was filming The Client in Memphis, Tennessee. And you have trailer-time when you’re working on a film, so she’s reading this book and she calls me up and says, “I want to meet you. I want to talk to you about a film.” And she was the first one that conceived it; that we needed another kind of film in the United States. We had these kind of formulaic films where the whole thing was: is he guilty or not? And if he’s guilty then justice was done. End of reflection. And she said that we need to bring people over to both sides in a much deeper way, and I think your book can do that. But she couldn’t get Tim to read it because he was doing other projects. And nine months went by, until they’re walking in New York one night and she grabs him by the arm and bursts into tears and says, “if we’re not going to do the film of the nun’s book then we need to turn it over to somebody else.” So probably for domestic tranquility…

William Faulkner said that “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart and conflict inside it.” And Tim got it, but every Hollywood studio turned it down.

Right, so there was the book—that you wrote—and the film—that you worked on intensely—and the stage version after. So this opera seems like the first version of this story where you haven’t had a serious creative role.

That’s right. Except to give the book—because Terrence McNally got somebody to type all the dialogue in the book. He took it out and that’s how he built it. And what’s different about the opera is that everybody sees the murder in the prologue. You know who did it, so you’re not using any energy on that—did he do it or not? Is he guilty or not?—you know and you don’t like him; and he’s not taking responsibility. I think that’s the core of the journey for everybody, because that’s the crime where everybody thinks we ought to have the death penalty, even in Canada.

And in real life I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea—when I wrote my first letter—to this man, Patrick Sonye, that they were going to kill him. We hadn’t had an execution in Louisana in, like, twenty years. I thought I was just going to be writing letters. And then it all ratcheted… it was just unbelievable… and then you’re in the death house with somebody!

You have no way of knowing that they’re dying except with your mind and your watch, because they’re talking to you like they always have, just trying to get ready to go; to walk.

When we were making the film Susan kept saying, “this is so surreal.” Because they have a protocol, because everybody’s got to get through this thing; everybody has their job; the guards are going to practice—when the person goes peacefully and when they have to fight them every inch of the way. Because they’ve got to be able to do it with a real person, when it’s a real death.

There are so many questions I want to ask that have nothing to do with this review…

But the point, earlier, about knowing and removing the question of guilt, that forms part of the interest for the movie and the story—but it’s much more operatic to know. That’s a problem for lots of people unfamiliar with opera, that you have a synopsis—you know what’s going to happen, so why do you want to watch? I’ve always thought that is pretty strange, especially today, but I hadn’t considered that’s also where the magic may come from—because your reaction is shaped by knowing. That perfectly suits your story; removing the question of guilt was a major part of your project, and the conventions of opera require that.

Well, I never thought about that before.

Which reminds me of something Susan Sarandon said about you. She said that you have “a very practical faith.”

Work. She gave that line in the film, you know? “Sister, I don’t have your faith.” “It ain’t faith—it’s work.” You’ve gotta work. You’ve gotta make it happen.

Right, so I read a National Endowment for the Arts study the other day that said about 2% of Americans go to an opera each year—3% in 1980. And you started with a bestselling book, and then a popular movie, so you’ve gone through the mass media and now you’re at opera. So why do an opera?

It’s pretty instinctual. As soon as they called me and said they want to do an opera, it came together in my mind: the fullness of live drama and music—music takes you to places in your heart that you don’t know you have. That it could be a full experience, because there’s so much resonance in all these things that happen, and the characters… the Warden: we’re just trying to do our job; the guards who have to carry it out; then the victim’s families—and I really made a terrible mistake by not reaching out to the victim’s families. When do they see me? They see me at a pardon board hearing. Why am I there? To ask that the person not be executed. That’s the first time they meet me.

So that angle was real, and my avoiding them was real too. I had a good editor and on the first draft he said, “you’re kind of downplaying not reaching out to those victim’s families.” And I said, “yeah!” And he said, “well it was cowardice, wasn’t it? I mean, you were scared weren’t you?” And I said, “yeah” and he said, “put that in your book, face it head on.” Because it was so scary, and I’m already riddled with guilt because they’ve lost a loved one and I haven’t. And it’s in a culture where everybody’s telling them, “you’ve got to be for the death penalty or it’ll look like you didn’t love your kid.”

It’s one of the few righteous attitudes left. Survivors are above criticism.

Right. Because it’s a seesaw effect: you’re either on one side or another, and you’re like the enemy. It’s an amazing dynamic. But the more I look at it, you know, the guards, everybody involved… it kind of taints everybody it touches.

We have more and more people coming forward. 62 murder victim’s families testified when New Jersey did away with the death penalty. “Don’t kill for us.” They felt they were being manipulated into it—like we’re being promised, the person is being executed and we get to watch them, and the promise in that is that it’ll honour our dead child, it’s going to heal us and help us to get closure. It’s a false, illusory promise.

There was this article in Newsweek about a year ago, a two-page spread and the title was “I committed murder.” Guess what you put on the death certificate when you execute somebody?

No. Cardiac arrest?

It’s “homicide.” They usually put “legal homicide.” Texas puts “legal homicide by way of execution.” And that’s why in this opera, it’s so interesting, when you have the actual killing of a man by lethal injection it’s a minute and a half of silence; all you hear is the machines. So it’s down to silence. I don’t know if there’s any other opera that has a minute and a half of silence. Do you?

I don’t think anybody had the guts.

How many performances do you think you’ve seen?

About twelve or fifteen.

And does anything come out in the opera that doesn’t in the film or the book?

The mother. The opera brings out the mother much more than the film. It was Frederica von Stahn in San Francisco… and it just breaks your heart, because she’s never done this in public and here she is talking about her little boy swimming like a dolphin in the bathtub. “Don’t kill my son.” It really brought that out, made me realize it too, in terms of the mothers—because their stories aren’t told very much.

The other thing is when the guard tells him the date. What happens is, the guard comes to your cell and hands you something to sign, which gives the date of the execution and the method by which you’re going to die. They want you to sign just so that you know it’s happening. So he’s doing pushups and the guard comes and goes “August 4th, come midnight, is the date of the execution. You hear me?” And he keeps doing his pushups and he doesn’t answer the guard. He just sings, “I hear ya, I hear ya; August 4th, my little brother’s birthday. Happy birthday little brother…” Over and over again; it’s a repetition, the way they anticipate dying. They die a thousand times in their minds before they die.

Sartre? I wove Camus’ Reflections on the Guilliotine into the book after Jason Epstein, my editor, asked when was the last time I read it. He said, “go back, it might be a way to thicken your book.”

You mentioned von Stahn as the mother. Susan Graham played you in the premiere; was today the first time you met Allyson McHardy?

Yeah. And Jake had told me the whole story of how he’d asked her to lunch, and how mezzos don’t usually get the lead roles. Why is that? It’s like the cowboy movies—good guys, white hats; bad guys, black hats. Jake said he couldn’t imagine the character knocking off high Cs.

Does any production compare to the first one? You had such an amazing cast.

I kind of take them each on their own. Houston was fantastic—Joyce DiDonato, you know? It kind of gave her a start. She just has an amazing voice… so San Francisco stood out, Houston did, and Dresden did. The context was important. Jake wanted it to open in a place in Europe with a history of oppression, government killing and so on, so maybe that coloured it.

And retribution: the firebombing…

Oh, yeah. And I remember one who was going to play me—I don’t remember her name—Jake called me up and said, “I need you to come over and have lunch with her because she’s building it up so much in her mind that you’re going to be there.” And I guess, it could freak you out a little.

It could freak you out a little too.

Well, no!

Really? Because you already had an experience with the film? Otherwise, seeing yourself up there you might think, oh my god…

Now here’s the most crucial thing I have to tell you. I never dreamed I was going to be with human beings who were being killed before my eyes. I never dreamed of it. That’s the crucible, and all of this rendition of it, in whatever shape, it’s to get it out there and to wake them up. And that’s always how I thought of it.

So, next to accompanying six human beings to their executions, to do an opera, do a film? Okay. Let’s do it. And I knew that an opera would reach an echelon of people that would not be reached by the others. And I learned a lot; that you have to be brave as an opera company to do a new opera. Because most people don’t, or they bite the bullet, do it the modern way and then it never gets performed again.

Yeah. You can’t fake it—if it doesn’t connect to the audience it doesn’t connect to the audience.

One of the reasons I was excited for this opera and to be meeting you was because I have a problem with reviving ancient plays.

Museum pieces.

Yeah and we’re talking about an art that has money problems and audience problems and a legacy of giant halls to fill—why make it harder for yourself?

So before this one, the first opera of that kind I saw was last year when the University of Toronto had three music students collaborate to compose an opera about the mayor.

The mayor?!

Yeah! He’s this unbelievable screwup; he even got kicked out of office eventually. And it was hilarious, there were lines going out of the building—not quite the issues raised in Dead Man Walking, but still, you could see it click. And some of that music was very difficult, and people still went for it. I think some are starting to understand that.

The artform won’t live if you don’t keep making it. You know what Tim Robbins said about films? “You always want to have surprise.” Otherwise you just have technique and it loses the magic.