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Dayton Opera Debuts the Critically Acclaimed Opera Dead Man Walking, the First Ohio performance of this Gripping Opera in Over a Decade

DAYTON, OH (February 9, 2015) – On Friday, February 27, 2015 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, March 1, 2015 at 3 p.m. in the Mead Theatre of the Schuster Center, Dayton Opera, under the Artistic Direction of Thomas Bankston, will present Dead Man Walking, the critically acclaimed and thought-provoking opera by contemporary composer Jake Heggie. Support for this production is provided by Overture Sponsor, the Bill and Jackie Lockwood Family Foundation; Associate Sponsors Janet and Vernon Fernandes and Crowne Plaza Dayton; Supporting Sponsors Faruki Ireland & Cox P.L.L., Rion, Rion & Rion, L.P.A., Inc., Jon and Diana Sebaly, and 10 Wilmington Place; and by DPAA Innovation Partner, the DP&L Foundation: Powering Innovation in the Arts.

Before it was an opera, Dead Man Walking was a highly lauded, award-winning movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Before it was a movie, it was a groundbreaking, bestselling book by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., member of the Congregation of St. Joseph. But before that, it was a stormy spiritual journey involving a Catholic nun, a murderer on death row, the victims of his unthinkable actions, and society at large. For Sister Helen and many others, it is a journey that continues today.

In fact, the debate surrounding the opera’s main theme is in the news in Ohio and elsewhere in the nation and speaks to our collective views on justice, compassion, the American legal system, and our role as citizens.

At the outset, Sister Helen Prejean was simply following her mission: to provide spiritual help to a prisoner. But her own deeper realization came about as she was confronted with the actuality of how the prisoner’s crime tore families asunder. She also found herself becoming painfully aware of the legal and societal process that put people on death row.

With stunning music by Jake Heggie and a magnificent libretto by Terrence McNally, this opera taps into one of the core issues of our day and the whirlwind of emotions that surrounds it. Whether you’ve thought about the death penalty or not, this opera is sure to open a path to your heart, soul and mind. After all, isn’t that what great art is all about?

After his success with Hansel and Gretel in February 2014, Dayton Opera favorite Gary Briggle returns to the company for his ninth engagement to tackle this challenging work as Stage Director of Dead Man Walking. Jerome Shannon, Music Director and Principal Conductor for Pensacola Opera, will take the podium for the first time at Dayton Opera as Conductor, leading the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra in this production. In a review of his Tulsa Opera performances of Dead Man Walking it was said that he “made the orchestra practically a separate character in the drama.”  Both central characters in this production make their Dayton Opera debuts:  mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin will play the riveting Sister Helen Prejean, and baritone Zachary Gordin will play the dramatically challenging role of inmate Joseph De Rocher.

University of Dayton (UD) music faculty member soprano Minnita Daniel-Cox, who recently lent her glorious voice to Dayton Philharmonic’s Stained Glass Series and Handel’s Messiah, takes the stage in her Dayton Opera debut as Sister Rose. Making their Dayton Opera debuts as De Rocher’s mother and Father Grenville are mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak and tenor Steven Sanders.  Returning from this season’s The Magic Flute are soprano Andrea Chenoweth, Kitty Hart; mezzo-soprano Ryu Kyung Kim, Jade Boucher (both members of the UD music faculty); and bass-baritone Thomas Hammons as Warden George Benton.  All four Dayton Opera Artists-in-Residence – soprano Sara Schabas (Sr. Catherine), mezzo-soprano Amanda Fink (Sr. Lillianne), tenor Joshua Wheeker (debut, Howard Boucher), and baritone Jeff Byrnes (debut, Owen Hart)– will also be appearing.  And closing out this large cast are UD music faculty member baritone Errik Hood (Motorcycle Cop/1st Guard) and UD music students and tenors, Francis A. Brown and Joshua Houston (De Rocher’s two younger half-brothers).

Dayton Opera Chorus, under the direction of chorus master Jeffrey Powell, will add richness and depth to the thought-provoking subject matter played out on stage.  Scenery for this production comes from the Des Moines Metro Opera, designed by R. Keith Brumley, with lighting designed by John Rensel.

This is the first Ohio performance of the opera in a decade and a truly rare experience.  Dayton Opera is pleased to partner with the University of Dayton and its unique and innovative 2014–2015 “Rites. Rights. Writes.” campus-wide initiative, which has Dead Man Walking as its arts focus for this year.  As part of this initiative, Composer Jake Heggie recently completed a mini-residency with the University of Dayton on January 28–30, 2015 to give master classes and a recital in which he discussed the creative process and the inspiration behind the composition of his operatic version of Dead Man Walking. 

This month, in continuation of the collaboration with University of Dayton, the following pre-performance events are set to highlight Dayton Opera’s presentation of Dead Man Walking:  (for more information, visit www.go.udayton.edu/rrw)

Does the Death Penalty Have a Future? – February 18, 7:00 pm – University of Dayton, Sears Recital Hall, 300 College Park, Dayton – A panel discussion about various perspectives on capital punishment by leading jurists, public defenders and advocates from the Miami Valley. Sponsored by the Prelaw Program with supporting involvement from the University of Dayton School of Law, the Graul Chair in Arts and Languages and the Dayton Opera. This event is free and open to the public.

Film Screening of Dead Man Walking – February 20, 2015, 5:00 p.m. –Kennedy Union Ballroom, University of Dayton, 300 College Park, Dayton – Film screening of Dead Man Walking, a 1995 film based on the book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean. The film is directed by Tim Robbins and stars Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. It was nominated for four Academy Awards. Sponsored by the Center for Student Involvement and the Graul Chair in Arts and Languages. This event is free and open to the public.

Dayton Art Institute: The Last Supper – February 21–April 12, 2015 – Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North, Dayton – Artist Julie Green’s The Last Supper: 600 Plates Illustrating Final Meals of U.S. Death Row Inmates. This installation of delicately painted porcelain plates depicts the final meal requests of U.S. death row inmates and brings a sense of palpable immediacy to the reality of the death penalty in America. Sponsored by the Office of the President, Department of Art and Design and the Graul Chair in Arts and Languages, in partnership with the Dayton Art Institute. For more information call 937-223-4ART (4278).

Mid-day Arts Café – February 24, 2015, 12:00 noon-1:00 p.m. – Mathile Theatre, located in the Schuster Center, One West Second Street, Dayton – For just $15, patrons can enjoy a complete box lunch provided by Citilites Restaurant & Bar and an opportunity to hear insights on the opera Dead Man Walking with Dayton Opera Artistic Director Thomas Bankston, Director Gary Briggle, and Conductor Jerome Shannon.  Mid-day Arts Café Tickets are available by calling Ticket Center Stage at 937-228-3630.

Sr. Helen Prejean:  A UD Speaker Series Event – February 26, 2015, 7:00 p.m. – University of Dayton, RecPlex, 2 Evanston Avenue, Dayton – Sr. Helen Prejean, C.S.J. is an internationally known death penalty activist and the author of the book Dead Man Walking. Sr. Helen divides her time between raising awareness about the death penalty and counseling death row prisoners. Sponsored by the Office of the Provost. This event is free and open to the public.

Pre-Performance Talks, Dead Man Walking – February 27, 2015 and March 1, 2015, 7:00pm, Schuster Center, One West Second Street, Dayton – To learn even more about Jake Heggie’s gripping opera Dead Man Walking, opera-goers are invited to come one hour prior to both performances to hear insights given by University of Dayton Professor of Music Dr. Sam Dorf.  

Tickets for Dead Man Walking range from $38 to $94 and are available at www.daytonperformingarts.org or by calling Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630. Senior, student, and military discounts are available. Note: Due to the subject matter of this opera, Dead Man Walking is recommended for mature audiences only.  For more information on this production or on other upcoming performances of the 2014-2015 season of Dayton Opera, visit www.daytonperformingarts.org.