Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Abominable Showman, March 9, 2013

Crescent City Saint
CharPo sits down with famed Roman Catholic Nun Sister Helen Prejean on the eve of L’Opéra de Montréal’s production of the critically-acclaimed opera Dead Man Walking, which is based on Prejean’s New York Times bestseller. Plus, Prejean remembers the day she first met Susan Sarandon and the last day of convicted murderer Elmo Patrick Sonnier’s life …
by Richard Burnett
(performance photos by Yves Renaud, rehearsal and presser photos by Richard Burnett)

My friends in New Orleans began calling me Hurricane Bugs after I blew into NOLA for Halloween some years ago, and scared the bejezus out of the Big Sleazy on my absinthe-laced boozy first night there when I tripped and fell on Bourbon Street, then slid face first into a gutter. 

For real.

As I looked up, a famous Oscar Wilde quote came to mind: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

Or, as I like to say, “The stars look brightest from the gutter.”

Prejean meets the media
Funny enough, that same thought ran through my head again the other day when I met New Orleans living legend Sister Helen Prejean, the famed Roman Catholic nun of the local Congregation of St. Joseph who chaired the U.S. National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty from 1993 to 1995, and wrote the international bestseller Dead Man Walking, the autobiographical account of her relationship with convicted murderer Elmo Patrick Sonnier, which was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Susan Sarandon (who portrayed Prejean), a play and an acclaimed opera, which opens at L’Opéra de Montréal on March 9.

Sister Helen was in Montreal for a couple of days last week to help promote L’OdeM’s production, and after the rehearsal I attended, she was escorted out by her PR handler who told her she had just a couple more interviews to do.

“Well, do you have any water?” Sister Helen asked, “Or some vodka?”

“I’m a vodka-rocks man myself,” I butted in. “Had I known I would’ve brought my mickey of vodka!”

Needless to say, Sister Helen and I became fast friends. And the woman is a born storyteller. (cont'd)

“I grew up with privilege, but I got involved with poor people in New Orleans and became a nun,” Sister Helen told me. “So while I’m working there I get this invitation [in 1982] to write a letter to a man on death row. We hadn’t seen an execution in Louisiana in over 20 years because of a moratorium. Then when [Canada] got rid of the death penalty in 1976, we put it back.

“So I got this invitation from death row and I never dreamed they were going to kill him [Elmo Patrick Sonnier, renamed Joseph De Rocher in the opera]. I was an English major, I thought I’d just write a nice letter. I knew [Patrick] was poor, couldn’t afford a crackjack lawyer. He wrote back, said he had nobody to come visit him.”

So Sister Helen went and met Sonnier, who’d been sentenced to death for the November 5, 1977 rape and murder of Loretta Ann Bourque, 18, and the murder of David LeBlanc, 16. 

“I didn’t know anything about the law, I thought America had the best court system in the world, and I was surprised when we met how human his face was,” says Sister Helen.

In the end, Helen stood next to Sonnier when he was executed on April 5, 1984. Sonnier was age 34, and Sister Helen was then 43 (she turns 74 this April 21). “There was a minute-and-a-half of silence, and when you come to the point, all you hear are the machines. The machines take over, justice is done.”

Prejean continues, “The audience at this opera will go on this whole journey. The opera opens with the murder and there is no moral energy – no 'Did he do it or not? Is he guilty or not?' We know who did it. And we all know that struggle when one has been hurt, to get even.”

Dead Man Walking was the first-ever opera by American composer Jake Heggie, with a libretto by Pulitzer-nominated and Tony-Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally. Explains Sister Helen, “I told Jake, ‘I have just two requests: the theme has got to be redemption, and don’t do any of that eight-tone stuff!’

“I only met with Terrence a couple of times. He was the one who thought of doing Dead Man Walking, and he and Jake wrote it in an incredibly short time. Terrence had someone type up all the dialogue in [my] book and that’s what he started with. The dialogue.”

While McNally captured Sister Helen’s character down pat, mezzo-soprano Allyson McHardy is –like Susan Sarandon in the Oscar-winning film adaptation – much taller than Prejean.

“I read Sister Helen’s book and watched the movie to help prepare for this role,” McHardy told me earlier that same day. “It’s very dramatic and – just meeting her – she’s so positive, such a force. It’s such a privilege to take it on and I feel a great responsibility to the music and to Sister Helen. She really is generosity personified. She came up to me [during a rehearsal] and said, ‘You’re in, You’re in!’ And I had tears. It was pretty incredible.”

Sister Helen says she also helped coach Susan Sarandon one-on-one. “I did the same thing with Susan – I talked about what happened, about the visits [to see Sonnier in prison], what it was like, how I felt. The real stuff.”

Prejean also learnt a lot from Sarandon.

“I got very good advice from the beginning: Don’t sign a contract with anybody unless you trust them. So Susan and I went for dinner and we talked and she was the one who knew we needed to make a film about the death penalty that wasn’t formulaic. I trusted her. She brought in Tim [Robbins] and we worked really collaboratively with him. So when Jake and Terrence did the opera, that process with Tim and Susan gave me the confidence that these [new] people could handle the material.”

What did Sister Helen think when she first saw herself portrayed up there in lights?

“This is bigger than me, it’s been a miracle to me,” Sister Helen replies, then looks me straight in the eye. 

“You know, I didn’t even put this in the book because people might think it was over the top, but [Patrick] didn’t want me to be there with him when he was electrocuted because he thought it would scar me and he was trying to protect me. 

“I said, ‘Pat, I’ve never done anything like this before. But it’s not about me, it’s about you being able to die with dignity. And you look at my face. If they do this, if they carry this out, I will tell your story across this land.’ I [really] made this grandiose statement. ‘I will tell this story across this land and we can end the death penalty in this country.’

Sister Helen and Bugs
“I actually made him that promise. And so I’m keeping a promise.”

L’Opera de Montreal presents Dead Man Walking, an opera in two acts (running time: 2 hrs 45 min) by Jake Heggie with Libretto by Terrence McNally, featuring Allyson McHardy and Etienne Dupuis in an all-Canadian cast, sung in English with English and French subtitles, in Salle Wilfrid-Pelletier at Place des Arts, on March 9, 12, 14, and 16, 2013, at 7:30 pm.Click here for more info and tickets. 

Click here for Sister Helen’s official website to lobby against the death penalty.

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1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the excellent article....You really captured Sr. Helen, and the process we are all going through in bringing this piece to life....John Mac Master


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