Sunday, January 28, 2018

Original Art Sundays No. 263: Dead Man Walking

Opera season is well upon us again. I was graced to attend Media Preview Night of MN Opera's new production of Dead Man Walking. According to the advance blurbs, this is the most staged modern opera (though there is scant explanation of the criteria for that assertion).
This production had its minor flaws, but was devastating in many ways.
Sister Helen Prejean, on a proscenium. Clouds and crucifix.
Effective use of lighting effects for clouds.
While the performances were all exemplary, the staging stole the show. Canny and effective use of lights, projected backgrounds and digital effects over a sparse multi-leveled set offered impressive versatility. The last opera I attended at MNO, The Magic Flute (I did not make it to Preview Night for that one- a shame, as it was delightful), relied on more traditional sets, with scenics set on rollers for versatility. Quite apropos for a more traditional piece.
In this case, the majority of the piece was set inside a prison. As such, the palette was primarily grays, with costume and lighting offering little relief. Given the subject matter, some relief is necessary. Here, it comes as the aforementioned kinetic staging.
Many cautions were given to attendees about subject matter. The story was filmed many years ago, and there's a well-read book, so I'm not too worried about spoilers here. The opening rape scene was staged subtly, given its content. Still, I winced. The coarse language didn't trouble me. It rarely does if appropriate to the story. The character of the accused Joseph DeRocher (sung with depth and precision by Seth Carico), offered spiritual counsel by Sister Helen Prejean (ably played and sung by Catherine Martin), plays the scene with brutality and lack of reserve. But somehow, despite my cringing at the scene, it has a reduced impact overall.
An attempt to capture the moving "light bars" of the cell block on paper.
One of the most compelling scenes used overlapping linear patterns to simulate cell and prison bars. The inmates moved about them with an urgency that echoed a captive state.
A note about drawing this opera: I usually do a fairly direct setup, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible. I clip a book light to my sketchbook and fill my lap with the most necessary tools, the rest of my drawing kit at the ready.
This night, it all went south.
My book light slipped from my grasp and broke. This left me drawing in relative darkness. It's been a while since I practiced the Zen of blind drawing, and the results were simply horrid. To top it off, probably due to frustration over the turn of events, I kept dropping my favorite inking tool. In selfish terms just of drawing, the night was an unmitigated disaster.
DeRocher's mother.
The only decent drawing done during the preview.
But it's a poor workwoman that blames her tools. After getting a bit of rest, I regrouped and reworked most of the key pieces, from memory and from whatever reference I could gather. I decided to try to work fast, as I would have had to in the original circumstance, and to use the same tools, in an attempt to preserve the integrity of the drawings. I like to post the drawings done during the preview. It probably doesn't matter to anyone but me, but it seems right.
There's a reason I use markers for this sort of work. They encourage speed. I did cheat a bit and spend a bit more time on the straightedge work. Also, I used small Bristol boards rather than Canson sketchbook paper, and worked in French grays rather than the cool grays I used on site.  I stuck to my commitment to allocate no more time for the reworks than I had at the actual preview.
DeRocher's moment of surrender
This opera, this story, is driven by core emotions: rage, sorrow, random and scattered moments of joy and hope, and the possibility of forgiveness. While it would have distracted, there were times I yearned for a close-up, just for the emotional impact.
Even without that option, there were ample moments of emotional clarity. The one drawn here was a moment of silence following a profound and bitter self-realization.
The sparse moment in both score and libretto served well. Terrence McNally (libretto) and Jake Heggie (music) made wise decisions around these issues. While there were several chaotic scenes of cross-talk, rage and grief, many of the principals had moments of clarity, reflected by the reduction and absence of sound.
Sometimes people listen more closely if one talks more softly.
A word on performance dynamics: when I began attending preview nights, there was a stated rule against applause and audience reaction, as it is indeed a rehearsal.
The father, in a moment of rage.
Now it appears the rules have changed. Not only was applause de rigeur between acts, but there were curtain calls. Not an inherently bad thing, just not what I expected, based on past experience.
Howard Boucher, father of the rape victim, was played with remarkable strength and vulnerability by Rob Asklof. His narrative echoes that of DeRocher in surprising ways: unbridled rage and fear, borne in both cases of a fear of redemption and forgiveness.
In marked contrast, Father Grenville (sung by Dennis Petersen) shows an intransigence which does not appear to resolve. His persona seems rigidly static through to the end.
Father Grenville
There's a weariness to the man, as though he's resigned to his failure to save those in his charge as prison Priest.
The internal logic of this is sound. Beyond a core of humanity, no two people are going to respond in the same way to such dire circumstances. Playing these reactions against one another is the core of story.
I came to the work with personal baggage, as one who was raised Catholic but no longer practices. A minor impediment to seeing the work objectively,  but one that deserves to be noted. I suspect that this work pulls on the strings of everyone's faith and upbringing. The issue of capital punishment touches on the one of the core questions of any society. Who has the right to take a life?
Despite my scattered misgivings, I found the production both professional and profound. There are performances scheduled for today, January 30 and the weekend of February 1 and 3. Tickets can be obtained here.
MN Opera is staging a strong season. Next up in mid-March, it's Rigoletto.
I look forward to drawing it.
Next: more of my graphic memoir, Sharp Invitations.