By Elaine Hegwood Bowen, MSJ
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents its company premiere of the American opera “Dead Man Walking,” adapted from Sister Helen Prejean’s novel of the same name, which was also adapted into the Tim Robbins-directed, Academy Award-winning film starring Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen with Sean Penn as the death row inmate.
The opera, which is inspired by a true story, tells the story of a young couple that is brutally killed, and the convicted murderer, Joseph De Rocher, who sits on death row. A Louisiana nun, Sister Helen Prejean, agrees to be his spiritual adviser. As she meets his family, and the families of his victims, she begins questioning every attitude she has about how human beings treat each other.
Whitney Morrison, who is a Chicago native and an alumna of Lyric’s Ryan Opera Center (pre-professional training program), plays Sister Rose in “Dead Man Walking,” which is marked by her first lead role with the Lyric.
The Crusader interviewed Soprano Morrison a while back, when she first entered the Center. At that time, the Washington Park native was excited about the opportunity. “I am excited to achieve a highly developed and refined sense of artistry that will wow audiences on an international stage and a pragmatic skill set that will allow me to move through the ins and outs of working at that level with a great deal of professionalism and confidence.”
And now she’s set to star in a production that is both provocative and emotional, and one that Morrison knows will require a lot. “Joy and gratitude arise when I think of the awesome responsibility that Lyric has given me to play such an important role. Also, as I am making my transition from young artist to emerging professional, that gratitude is extended to the smoothness of that transition because I am beginning the journey performing at my home company,” Morrison said. “A sense of comfort and familiarity help provide an additional ease in putting my best foot forward as I step into a new role on and off the stage.”
Morrison appreciates the fact that this is a heavy opera, and it’s ironic that two upcoming films “Clemency” and “Just Mercy” also deal with the death penalty issue. “It [the opera] continues the national conversation of forgiveness and justice, which has been very resonant in the African-American community for a long time and particularly here recently. To see people struggle with being victimized and to see the other side struggle with victimizing those families gravely, it is very visceral and human in nature.”
She added: “Although Sister Rose is technically a made-up character in the story, she represents the community of Sisters who labored with Sister Helen Prejean as she took her first journey with an inmate on death row.”
Morrison is undaunted about the demands of the role and feels that the Ryan Opera Center has well equipped her for it. “I learned what practical steps it takes day to day to interact and communicate within the machine of a major opera house in order to help bring productions to the stage.” She also spoke about unity within that machine. “Opera is one big community — a family of real people who just so happen to do extraordinary things with their voices. I am a part of that community now.”
And the interview wouldn’t have been complete without Morrison’s thoughts on the late opera great, Jessye Norman. “Jessye Norman was a giant in the opera world, which made her a super hero of opera to me. Watching from afar as this unapologetically regal, multi-lingual, world-class artist used her influence from one of the most significant careers in opera history to return home to the U.S. to impact future generations of artists here and especially from her hometown, Augusta, Georgia, is for me to see the full arch and fulfillment of what is possible for a singer who looks like me.”
Morrison further stressed her admiration. “I was able to see her in person once, and who I saw was someone who looked very much like my mother’s sisters. That moment helped me realize how much the combination of excellence and representation was able to both ground and inspire me. Her commitment to the highest level of excellence in her singing career and her commitment to the future are what make Jessye Norman a shining example of a consummate artist and arts advocate.”
After her Chicago appearance, Morrison is headed to Germany for the World Premiere of “7 Deaths of Maria Callas” in April 2020. Among her other performance credits are an appearance at the Rochester Institute of Technology’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy, “MLK Expressions;” her debut at Rochester’s Kodak Hall singing Gershwin’s “My Man’s Gone Now” with the Eastman Wind Ensemble; and Donna Anna/ Don Giovanni with Chicago’s Floating Opera Company. “Dead Man Walking” runs from November 2 through 22 at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker Drive. It is sung in English with English texts projected above the stage. For more information, visit www.lyricopera.org/deadman or call 312-827-5600.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.” For book info, [email protected].