Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean pay a virtual visit to Guildhall School

Composer Jake Heggie speaking via zoom to Guildhall School staff and students

Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean pay a virtual visit to Guildhall School

Guildhall Opera department was delighted to recently host a special online Q&A with composer Jake Heggie and nun Sister Helen Prejean – two key figures behind the opera Dead Man Walking, which opens at Guildhall School at the end of February.

Dead Man Walking by Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally is one of the most powerful and thought-provoking operas of recent decades, exploring questions of faith, redemption and justice. Based on the memoir of the same name by Sister Helen, it tells the true story of a nun’s journey as a spiritual advisor to a convicted murderer on death row in Louisiana's hardline state penitentiary.

“I just remember every hair on my body standing up – the shiver of possibility of what [this story] could be on the grand opera stage.” 

Jake discusses making the decision with librettist Terrence McNally to choose Dead Man Walking as the story of his opera.

In 1995 the book was made into a celebrated film directed by Tim Robbins, for which Susan Sarandon won an Oscar for playing the role of Sister Helen, alongside Sean Penn as the convicted inmate. Heggie and McNally’s work premiered in the year 2000, having been commissioned by San Francisco Opera, and since then it has become the world’s most-performed American opera.

“You are dealing with something larger than yourself, larger than maybe your community, and yet there’s an intimate story at the heart of it.” 

Sister Helen explains why she trusted Jake to tell her story, and Jake talks about what he thinks makes a good subject for an opera.

We were thrilled that Jake Heggie and Sister Helen Prejean recently took the time to dial in from North America to speak exclusively to the cast and creative team members behind the School’s upcoming production. This exciting hour-long event offered Guildhall students and staff the chance to ask questions directly to both speakers, providing an invaluable opportunity to learn more about the remarkable real-life experience of Sister Helen, and how her story formed the inspiration for Jake’s composition.

Their fascinating conversation was recorded for the benefit of the production’s chorus, orchestral players and Production Arts students, and we are delighted to be able to share this selection of clips with you.

“That’s what we do in the Arts; we take people on journeys. The opera house, the concert hall – these are great places of reflection and meditation and community.” 

Jake and Sister Helen talk about the power of the arts to offer audiences new perspectives and “access to their own soul”.

Dead Man Walking, directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans and conducted by Dominic Wheeler, will be showing in Guildhall School’s Silk Street Theatre from 27 February to 6 March 2023. Tickets are available from the Barbican Box Office.