Justice at the Opera: 'Dead Man Walking'

Although Congress has yet to pass criminal justice legislation, the Washington National Opera wants to inspire lawmakers and judges to open a dialogue on the death penalty in America.

I spoke to the WNO’s artistic director Francesca Zambello, who is directing the upcoming performance “Dead Man Walking,” on opera based on the best-selling book from Sister Helen Prejean. The story follows the nun’s spiritual relationship with a death row inmate up until his execution by lethal injection.

Zambello said the opera sent invitations to all eight U.S. Supreme Court justices, the new presidential administration, and the governor of Louisiana—the state where the opera takes place.

Although WNO Senior Press Representative Michael Solomon couldn’t confirm whether any of those invitees would attend, he wrote in an e-mail that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is a regular attendee of the opera and sometimes brings fellow justices or clerks as guests. Solomon added that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich usually tweets pictures of his opening-night seats and felt confident he would likely attend.

While the opera deals with an intense social justice topic, Zambello said it’s one that respects the viewpoints of all parties affected by the death penalty, including the defendant’s, the victim’s parents’, and more.

“You have a canopy of opinions about the crime and the criminal and the punishment,” Zambello said. “The opera, which I think only opera can do, is that it gives you all of these viewpoints and it leaves the audience to decide about the validity of the death punishment.”

The diversity of perspective makes for a great show, but brought an unusual heaviness to rehearsals, she said. People often ended scenes with tears and discussions about the characters and their journeys, Zambello added.

But that’s exactly what opera was designed to do, she said. Even Mozart wrote operas about controversial political topics, she added.

“It reminds people that opera is an art form that can get people to talk about issues and ideas and real content,” Zambello said. “It happens to be an incredible opera with a melodic score and a lot of very tuneful melodies.”

“Dead Man Walking” runs from Feb. 25 to March 11.