Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Michael Mayes talks about Dead Man Walking

Jake Heggie and Michael Mayes

Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking has quickly secured its place in the operatic standard repertory since its premiere in  2000. Some of operas most amazing performers have taken on the role of alleged killer Joseph De Rocher, including John Packard, Daniel Okulitch, Philip Cutlip, Etienne Dupuis, Jordan Shanahan, Thomas Gunther, John Arnold, Marcus DeLoach, David Adam Moore, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Zachary Gordin and Mel Ulrich. But no-one has distinguished himself more in the role more than Michael Mayes, who even the composer called the "definitive" singer for the role.
The opera, with a libretto by Terence McNally, is based on Sister Helen Prejean’s 1993 account of her work on death row at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The opera now makes its debut in the state where the story takes place, as the New Orleans Opera performs the piece on March 4 and 6. The opera also stars Jennifer Rivera as Sister Helen Prejean, Margaret Lattimore as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher and Adrienne Danrich.

We asked Michael Mayes to talk about the role. 

Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher
1. What does it mean for this to be performed where the alleged crime actually happened?

When you make your life is performing characters in operas- it's a given that the bones of most of the people you portray and those whom have had their lives affected by these characters, have long since turned to dust.  Inasmuch as a significant portion of my performing career has been spent singing new works- I've been fortunate to have the privilege to portray characters for whom that isn't true.  One such instance is in my portrayal of Colonel Floyd James Thompson in Tom Cipullo's Glory Denied- the true story of the longest held prisoner of war in American History.  I've performed the role twice, and will again next year.  In the most recent production by Opera Memphis, we discovered early in the process that several of Colonel Thompson's children and grandchildren (who live in TN) would be present for opening night.  The impact of that knowledge cannot be overstated.  We were all of us incredibly excited to know they would be there, but as opening night grew closer, our anxiety as a cast began to really become quite palpable.  Not that in any other circumstance- we would have turned in performances that were less committed- but that every choice we made with these characters was incredibly important and had to have its genesis in truth.  There were definitely more limits on the choices available to us- however that constraint, rather than being a hedge, was an absolute creative boon to us all- and allowed us to create a really vivid characterization fueled by the knowledge that only feet away from us would be his son, his daughter, and his granddaughter- all of whom while not given a treatment in the score were referenced heavily.  

Were this merely a piece designed to lionize a man whose life was absolutely torn apart by war but ended somewhat happily with an affirming end of life moment- such as in Unbreakable- one would probably not have much anxiety about playing this role in corny of his family... But Glory Denied is an unflinching look at two very flawed individuals who weren't equipped to cope with the fallout that 9 years in a brutal prison camp that would reek havoc in the lives of them and their children.  There was no silk scarf over the camera lens to blur the sharp edges- and in order to play this man- I had to tell the truth- much of which wasn't pretty.  Knowing they would be there- seeing  this man that very much wanted to be perceived as a hero (to my mind he still was despite the struggle that he had to endure) was something that kept me up nights.  As the day grew closer, the anxiety that I had began to evolve into a kind of electricity.  I'd done my homework, I knew this man as well as someone who'd never actually met him could- and I had to just trust that the choices I made were appropriate and somehow told a truth- even if it wasn't 100% him.  

As I wandered around the stage that evening- telling Jim's story in all of its dimensions, both brutally honest and sympathetic, I knew that the they were somewhere in the first rows, in a very small house.  As I became Jim I had to push that thought from my mind and simply tell his story as best as I knew how.  As the lights went down on our show, I was curled into a fetal position on the deck, after one of the hardest arias I've ever had to learn which depicts colonel Thompson, body ravaged by a stroke that took his most treasured ability with it- coherent speech (Col Thompson was known to be an incredible public speaker), a ratty bathrobe soaked in stage booze, and alone still fighting the demons that plagued him his entire life- I began to come back to myself and realize that it was done.  When the lights came up on the audience I recognized his son Floyd immediately.  All around him was his family- and they were smiling.  Some with tears in their eyes.  I knew in that moment that we'd done right by him.  

After the performance we had the chance to speak with them- and their words of affirmation still ring in my ears.  It was one of my proudest moments.  Col. Thompson 's story was so important to me- and knowing that we did him justice- that his family approved, was absolutely invigorating artistically.

Dead Man Walking is based on true events- but Joseph is a fictional character.  He's not meant to be a depiction of any one historical figure, but rather to represent the journey of a man convicted of horrific crimes, sentenced to death, and eventually led to redemption by Sr. Helen.  The genius of the collaborators Terrence, Jake, and Sr Helen is that they're free to tell a story that isn't held to a concrete narrative (the names and biographical tapestry of the characters are not taken directly from history) and spares the families of all involved the pain of having their lives put on display over and over again.  

That being said- when we arrived here in New Orleans we were invited to a meet and greet to meet some important members of the NOLA opera community.  The impact that the horror of the crimes Sonnier and Willey committed was immediately apparent.  One board member recounted that she has to drive by Robert Willey's grave every day on her way into town.  One woman told me emphatically that she's looking forward to the opera, but that she was most definitely in favor of the death penalty.  The significance of doing this opera, in this town was never lost on me- but was never more starkly apparent to me as I spoke to people for whom this isn't an abstract story that occurred someplace else- this is an opera that conjures the ghosts of people who are buried in the soil all around them.  

We were asked to speak a little bit about our impression of the opera- and your question is exactly the one that occurred to me as I began to speak.  Without a doubt, in the audience, there will be people for whom this is an intensely personal story.  The horror that the men on whom my character is based inflicted is very real for them.  There will be friends, acquaintances, perhaps even family of these young people that were ripped from their lives out there. Watching.  And this is a very different story from Col Thompson's in that he was very much the victim of a horrible circumstances.  In the case of Joseph- I'm playing the instrument of horror- a man whom to many is an irredeemable monster.  It's a very different experience- and I have no idea what it will feel like to be him on his home soil.  It's incredibly intimidating to say the least- but by the same token, it's an enormous privilege and one I look forward to with every fiber of my being.  
Michael Mayes backstage

2. What does this role mean to you and how has it changed for you with subsequent performances? 

I could never overstate what this role means to me.  The first time I sang Joseph was a watershed moment for me as an artist. I'd been working here and there, doing lots of work from the standard repertoire and was a decent performer to my mind.  It wasn't until I took on Joseph, a role which is been dying to sing since I'd first been in the production in Cincinnati as one of the prison guards, that I really began to understand the kind of opera singer I wanted to be.  Seeing that show planted seeds in my mind that would eventually become the cornerstone of my own personal performing philosophy with respect to opera.  

In Joseph, I found a role in the operatic repertoire that would allow me to really "go there" dramatically.  I don't know if it was my own personal history with people like him- or if it was just a matter of timing- but I discovered in that first outing what it felt like to really connect with an audience in a way that was immediate.  There were no hedges of language or music that seemed from a different time- this was truly a masterpiece in my own language both musically and linguistically- so that all of the factors of language that often block an opera singer in America from truly having a character land on an audience with immediacy were no longer there.  I had to commit completely to the character and stand, quite literally, naked in front of the audience.  Once I'd discovered what that meant, what it felt like... A light came on for me- and I realized how much harder I needed to work when I approached roles in the standard repertoire to do everything I could to connect with my audience.  The level of commitment required to make that happen set a bar for the rest of my career that I'd strive to reach in every performance I'd give for the rest of my career.  Once I'd seen how powerful that kind of connection could be- there was no going back.  From then on- I couldn't be satisfied with the way I'd worked before.  After Joseph- I was irrevocably changed, and for the better.  
The most significant benefit of having had the privilege of performing this role as many times as I have, is the opportunity to economize and distill the epic nature of a character like Joseph down to a really streamlined and efficient portrayal.  When I first took on the role, I red-lined the entire night.  I put the pedal to the metal and kept it there for 3 hours.  I'd be absolutely wrung out physically and emotionally at the end of the night.  Now that I've had the chance to play him with many different players- I've been able to better recognize the ebb and flow of the character and use my energy in a much more effective way, so that in each moment, I'm always searching for the balance that is appropriate for that particular moment, instead of constantly feeling like I had to jump headlong into every interaction with abandon.  What I've found is the ability to relax into the natural ebb and flow of the narrative and allow the character to be carried along by the drama that Jake and Terrence have created , rather than feeling the need to control it.

Michael Mayes and Kirstin Chavez
3. What is the core message of this opera for you. 
I don't believe that this is an opera about the death penalty.  This is an opera about human compassion.  One might rush to the conclusion that in saying that I might mean for Joseph and his plight- but I mean it in a much more general sense.  What Sr. Helen, Jake, and Terrence have done with this piece is to pull back the curtain on the lives of an incredibly diverse group of people, and invite us all to take a look at them and the pain that this terrible circumstance has inflicted upon them all.  I believe they're asking us to take a respectful look at all of these people with empathy and compassion, and to see ourselves, if we can, in them all.  

I've often said that this piece doesn't take a position.  It doesn't preach.  In my opinion this piece isn't designed to cause us to change our minds on the death penalty- it's to make us analyze what we truly think about this incredibly complex issue.  The beauty of the work is that you could walk into a performance of this show with your opinion- and when the curtain comes down, walk out with the same view you had before you saw the show- but if we've done our jobs, when you leave that theatre you've really thought about why you believe what you believe.  Quite simply Dead Man Walking is not here to make a statement--- it's here to ask a question. 

Michael Mayes and Jenny Rivera
4. Compare the different Sister Helen Prejean's that you've sung with. I believe this is your second time with Jenny Rivera.

I can say with confidence is that every single one with whom I've had to privilege to collaborate has absolutely been incredible.  Each of them plays a different side of Helen- each giving such life and vibrancy to the different aspects of that character as well as bringing out different aspects of my own character in how they respond to the barrage of impulses Joseph De Rocher throws at them. Kirsten, Janice, Daniela, and Jenny are all incredible performers- going on this journey with them has been one of the greatest joys of my life.

Jenny and I are on our 3rd production, the first 2 having had quite a few performances each.  It's been an absolute joy getting to explore this relationship with her over the past few productions- we've really been able to find a groove- and the scenes between us only get richer with each iteration.  We really have a great sense of each other's dramatic timing now that so much of what we do is really unspoken and organic.  She's an incredibly supportive colleague and friend and I've enjoyed our shows together immensely.

Michael Mayes as Joseph De Rocher

5. Jake has called you the greatest Joseph De Rocher. Anything you'd like to say about the composer (and that comment)?

Heggie is my homeboy.

Jake has been such an advocate for me.  Words can't express how much love and respect I have for him.  He's been a constant source of support and love for me since the first one in Tulsa.  Since that freshman effort, I've gone through all kinds of personal and professional changes- and through it all Jake has always been a source of wisdom.  Not only just for this piece- but in life as well.  He's not only a voice of support when I've needed it, but a incredible advisor as well, when I've needed to be reminded why I'm doing this.  

I love this piece.  I love Jake- and when I love I do so passionately.  The problem is that sometimes that passion gets the best of me and I can be a bit myopic in my execution.  In those times, Jake has always been there to give me calm and reasonable perspective and I've discovered that WWJD is a great question to ask myself when I'm getting a bit over my swing.

All I can say is that I've loved every moment I've spent immersed in Jake's beautiful score- and to know that such a venerated artist thinks so highly of me is incredibly humbling- and drives me to work as hard as I can, no matter where this show takes me, to tell his truth as authentically as I can.

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