Troubling and divisive situations need most to be discussed, especially when the implications are as severe — for the individual and the broader society — as capital punishment, says pianist and composer David Troy Francis. “When people discuss these kinds of emotional issues in political debate, often they're made to feel stupid, and their positions harden,” he says.
Francis is the artistic director of The Modern American Music Project, an Asheville-based nonprofit with aims both musical and social. “Our goal and mission is to present quality, modern works of musical art by American composers, and combine them, if possible, with educational opportunities and social justice opportunities,” Francis says.
On April 26 and April 27, TMAMP will perform Terrence McNally's opera version of Dead Man Walking, a restaging of the 1995 film by Tim Robbins, which was based on a Roman Catholic nun's account of her ministry to a death row inmate convicted for the murder of a young couple.
Even without the nuances of the story, most are familiar with Sean Penn's brooding portrayal of a death row inmate and his final comeuppance with the counsel of Susan Sarandon's Sister Helen Prejean. “It's the same story [as the movie],” Francis says, “but with exquisite music by Jake Heggie.” The concert-style treatment relies on the music and singing as its focus. “It's a concert-style version with minimal staging. But it's intimate — the music and story are so poignant and compelling.”
While the score is decisively modern, audiences shouldn't expect Einstein on the Beach. “Unlike people's perception that modern American music is dissonant and inaccessible — this music is sort of like [George] Gershwin meets [Leonard] Bernstein. It's very linear, understandable.”
Although the music will have emphatic place — the orchestra is made up of three instruments: synthesizer, piano and percussion — the actors in the principal roles bring significance and distinction to McNally's grave libretto.
New York-based mezzo soprano Elise Quagliata performs the role of Sister Prejean opposite baritone Christaan Smith Kotlarek who plays the condemned Joseph De Rocher. Mezzo soprano Jane Bunnell, who has performed “on Broadway 450 times,” according to Francis, plays the role of De Rocher’s mother. “We have a true star in her,” Francis says. The cast also includes the local Celebration Singers of Asheville children's chorus and celebrated Asheville soprano Simone Vigilante, who gave a stirring voice to Druffle's Requiem with the Asheville Symphony Chorus in the fall of 2012 at Central United Methodist Church.
In addition to performing in the set of concerts, Bunnell will host a “master class” for distinguished area music students from UNCA, Western Carolina University and elsewhere. The class, from 1 to 3 p.m. on Thursday, April 25 at Lipinsky Auditorium, is also open to the public to participate or observe (for free).
The Music Project also honors its social justice commitments, rather substantially, with the presence of Sister Helen Prejean herself. The Roman Catholic nun who ministered the last days and rites of the real-life De Rocher will attend the performances and give a free public address on the topic of capital punishment at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, April 26, in Lipinsky Auditorium, where, just a few hours later, Dead Man Walking will be performed.
While the aspects of the libretto and the performance's peripheral events favor alternatives to the death penalty, Dead Man Walking is not a polemic set to music. “This particular play is about Sister Prejean's life and her own anti-capital-punishment views,” Francis says. “However, it does present, extraordinarily effectively, the viewpoints of the [murdered couple's] four parents while the mother of the murderer is begging the pardon board to commute [his] sentence to life.”
The scale of perspectives will leave much for the audience to feel and discuss. “In this kind of non-threatening venue, you get to actually see that the person who did these murders is human, and he has a family,” Francis says. “It's a way to examine issues that are important to our lives in ways that are thoughtful and hopefully provoke introspection and conversation about these issues.”
what: Dead Man Walking, concert-style opera
where: Lipinsky Auditorium at UNCA, Friday, April 26 8 p.m.
Coulter Hall at Western Carolina University, April 27 3 p.m.
when: For ticket pricing, and information on ancillary events, visit tmamp.org.