Baritone Michael Mayes is the quintessential Joseph De Rocher. (credit: Tom Grosscup)

Dead Man Walking comes alive in new Atlanta Opera production

Mark Gresham | 28 JAN 2019

This Saturday, The Atlanta Opera kicks off a four-performance run of a contemporary operatic masterpiece, Dead Man Walking, by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally. Since its premiere in 2000, Dead Man Walking has become the most performed new American opera of the 21st Century. It retells the true story of a nun’s encounter with a prisoner on death row who is sentenced to be executed for the brutal murder of a teenage girl, and the deep spiritual issues of confession, forgiveness and redemption.

Sister Helen Prejean, who wrote the best-selling book upon which the opera is based, is a leading American advocate for the abolition of the death penalty. She will be present for Saturday’s opening night performance and will participate in a pre-performance Q&A session with composer Jake Heggie at 7 p.m. The performances take place February 2, 5, 8 and 10 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.

Sister Helen Prejean, econd from left, with cast members Jamie Barton and Michael Mayes, and director Tomer Zvulun. (credit: Lauren Bailey)

Sister Helen Prejean, second from left, with cast members Jamie Barton and Michael Mayes, and director Tomer Zvulun. (credit: Lauren Bailey)

Baritone Michael Mayes and mezzo-sorpano Jamie Barton star as death row prisoner Joseph De Rocher and his spiritual adviser, Sister Helen. Mayes has built himself a solid reputation as the quintessential De Rocher. Barton will make her role debut as Sister Helen.

A native of Rome, Georgia, Barton leads what director Tomer Zvulun calls the production’s “luxury casting based on super-star opera singers that live in Atlanta” — a group which includes bass Kevin Burdette as Louisiana State Penitentiary warden George Benton and tenor Jay Hunter Morris as prison chaplain Father Grenville.

The cast also features mezzo-soprano Maria Zifchak in the role of De Rocher’s grief-stricken mother, soprano Karen Slack as Sister Rose, and bass-baritone Wayne Tigges portrays Owen Hart, the father of the murdered teenage girl. Conductor Joseph Mechavich will lead the Atlanta Opera Orchestra in these performances.

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According to Tomer Zvulun, who is the Atlanta Opera’s general and artistic director, the concept for this production of Dead Man Walking was first created for New Orleans Opera, where he directed it in 2016, as a co-production with Atlanta Opera. But in the ensuing three years it has taken to reach the Atlanta stage, it has been given some significant, fresh upgrades. “For our production in Atlanta,” says Zvulun, “we have rebuilt the set, added significant scenic elements and created brand new costumes.”

Zvulun notes with pride that the current Atlanta performances are also a co-production with the Israeli Opera. When Israeli Opera mounts its own performances this coming December, he says, “It will be the first contemporary American opera to ever be produced in Tel Aviv.” Originally from Israel himself, Zvulun maintains a strong relationship with that country’s operatic community — only one of his many national and international connections which have greatly benefited Atlanta’s growing operatic scene. ■