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Gazette Premium Content Opera composer Jake Heggie visits the Colorado Springs Conservatory

By Jen Mulson Published: March 10, 2014

At first blush, a modern death penalty execution might seem like an off-limits topic for an opera.

But San Francisco composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally were commissioned by the San Francisco Opera in the late '90s to do just that: compose an opera based on "Dead Man Walking: An Eyewitness Account of the Death Penalty in the United States." The book was written by Sister Helen Prejean, who became the spiritual adviser for Patrick Sonnier, a man on death row in Louisiana. In 1984, she accompanied him to his execution. Her book also inspired the Oscar-winning 1995 film starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.

Heggie appreciates the rawness of the material, though. It attracts those who might not normally attend an opera.

"I'm always interested in stories about social injustice," Heggie said. "Those operas resonate most with the public. We're not in a position of preaching, but inequities in lives and social systems give birth to big emotions that fill a dramatic space like an opera house. Even classic operas like 'The Marriage of Figaro,' 'Carmen,'' 'La Traviata' - they are all things where there are big issues of social injustice: people who have and don't have, people who have the power and don't have it."

Heggie will be in town Friday to give a master class on opera composition to selected Colorado Springs Conservatory students, faculty and alumni performers. The public is invited to the second half of the event, in which the Central City Opera Ensemble Artists perform arias from the musical "Dead Man Walking." A reception with Heggie will follow.

The event is part of the opera company's "Prisons, Compassion and Redemption Project," which kicks off Wednesday. The statewide program includes a book signing, film screening, panel discussions, cemetery crawl and historic tours, all culminating in a Central City Opera production of the complete "Dead Man Walking" in July.

The opera offers a different version of Sister Prejean's story than the film, Heggie says. McNally decided to lead with the crime from the get-go, leaving the audience with no doubt of Sonnier's guilt. And then it gets tricky.

"The question now is now what do we do?" he said. "That is the journey of the opera. That is the big question in the world today. What do we do when somebody is really guilty? Forgiveness or vengeance? Love or hate? What makes us safer, better? The sister character gets caught in those questions from all sides."

Composing the opera allowed Heggie to develop a relationship with Sister Prejean, which he remains grateful for.

"I didn't get to meet Ghandi or Martin Luther King, Jr.," he said, "but she's got that fire in her as well. She's a really inspiring person."

She made only one request of Heggie and McNally before they spent two and a half years writing the opera.

"She was so supportive from the beginning. She said, 'I know things have to change on stage, and you have to invent characters and change things, but I ask that it remains a story of redemption,'" he said. "The big surprise was it wasn't just a journey of the spiritual crisis of a murderer and the murderer's parents, but the sister is in a spiritual crisis all through this piece. She's confused, too."

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Contact Jennifer Mulson: 636-0270

"An Evening with Jake Heggie"

What: Arias from Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally's opera "Dead Man Walking" by Central City Opera Ensemble Artists

When: 5:30 p.m. Friday, reception follows

Where: Colorado Springs Conservatory, 415 Sahwatch St.

Tickets: Free, RSVP to aschubauer@csconservatory.org; 577-4556, coloradosprings conservatory.org, centralcity opera.org/project

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