Vancouver Opera Festival – Dead Man Walking

J'Nai Bridges and Daniel-Okulitch star in Dead Man Walking

J’Nai Bridges and Daniel-Okulitch star in Dead Man Walking, at the 2017 Vancouver Opera Festival. Emily-Cooper photo.

When most people think of opera, they think of classic, centuries-old pieces like La Bohéme, The Marriage of Figaro and Carmen, to name a few.

But one of the three major works being staged at the inaugural Vancouver Opera Festival (April 28-May 13) is a much more recent piece. Dead Man Walking is based on the 1993 book of the same name by Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J., and which most people will know from a 1995 movie adaptation starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. But, in 2000, it also became an opera, written by Jake Heggie with a libretto by Terrence McNally.

We talked to Joel Ivany, a Toronto-based director known for his innovative approach to opera, about bringing this version of Dead Man Walking to the Vancouver Opera Festival. (Note: Vancouver Opera Festival is offering a special promotion for Dead Man Walking, FORTY Under 40. Tickets for the opera are only $40 if you’re under 40. $40 under 40 tickets are available in limited quantities. To claim this deal, enter discount 6593 online at or call the ticket centre at 604-683-0222. Tickets will be available at will call and ID will be required.)

Inside Vancouver: What would you say about adapting new works rather than directing established opera pieces?

Joel Ivany: This piece is the leader of the pack, I guess you could say. After seeing the success from this particular opera, there’s been a big trend in the U.S. opera world towards the idea of turning a movie into an opera. Most of the time, they’ll pick a story that is very compelling, such as this one. In the last 15 years, we’ve seen world premieres of the operas for It’s a Wonderful Life. Another that debuted last year was The Shining. And there was an opera that started as a play than turned into the film Doubt.

It’s a different way to present that material because it’s all music. And they’re in English as well. That’s one of the avenues to take ownership of what can be a very foreign art form and which is traditionally in different languages.

IV: What elements need to be in a movie or play for it to be translated into an opera? Why does Dead Man Walking work?

JI: The story is paramount. Then finding the right composer to bring out the best of that story. For Dead Man Walking, Terence McNally had to choose less. There are fewer words. To sing one word may take three seconds longer than using it in a conversation. So Dead Man Walking is the story and the trajectory of these characters. Their path is so incredibly high and dramatic, and ultimately it’s redemptive and hopeful, which makes it so powerful, I think.

Opera singer J'Nai Bridges

Opera singer J’Nai Bridges. Emily-Cooper photo.

IV: When it comes to opera, we thinking of great singing, not necessarily great acting. But what struck a lot of people about the movie was the performances. How do you reconcile that for the opera?

JI: There are still so many fans of opera who like it for just the singing. Yet we put that in the same box as something like Dead Man Walking. We’ve been going to rehearsals and we’re like, “This is theatre, this is a theatre piece where they’re singing.” You need to be in it, especially when you’re dealing with subjects like this, where someone might be playing a parent whose child was raped and murdered. You can’t just sing that. You have to embody that and make us believe that you care. It isn’t real there but it is real in our world, if that makes sense. It’s totally intense and different even though it’s the same thing. the festival’s also rehearsing Otello, a big Italian opera with that classical idea of the singing. But we’re the same, though it’s completely different at the same time.

IV: Have you had experiences with other opera festivals?

JI: It’s done much more overseas, where people will gather for a weekend or for a whole four weeks during the summer. I think it’s great for the art form. It’s bringing in different people who may not want to see The Marriage of Figaro but they’ll come to see Tanya Tagaq, and then they may be interested in Dead Man Walking.

Ultimately, if  you plan this festival, you have to be connected with the audience as well. I know Vancouver Opera is going to great lengths to look at this city, to look at the community. There are three operas, two casts in one of the operas. I’ve never been around, in Canada, so many artists. And that’s remarkable as well.

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