Designing the World Premiere of Dead Man Walking at San Francisco Opera
Most designers who shoulder the mighty labors of grand opera feel fortunate to forge the irons of just one new show in their careers. After A Streetcar Named Desire, Michael Yeargan's inspired concept for Dead Man Walking was his second premiere for the San Francisco Opera, his fifth in two years.
"It started with Streetcar," he says, "and then it was The Great Gatsby at the Met, and then Central Park for Glimmerglass and the New York City Opera, Dead Man Walking, and Cold Sassy Tree in Houston. I feel like I was doing nothing but working on new projects."
Unlike the distant tragedies of classical opera, Dead Man Walking bares contemporary crime and punishment torn between mercy and revenge. Jake Heggie's commissioned score - his first - illuminates the political punch of Terrence McNally's libretto, which is taken from Sister Helen Prejean's book and is best known from Tim Robbins' 1996 film with Susan Sarandon as Sister Helen and Sean Penn as the death-row convict whose soul she seeks to save.
This production, which also features lighting by Jennifer Tipton and costumes by Sam Fleming, begins with the opening jolt of the murder and rape and ends the scene with a spotlight on Susan Graham's Sister Helen as a simple hymn wells up from the background. "It was such a shock," recalls Yeargan. "I had a hard time just getting past that first page. But we decided we needed the grittiness and to actually see him do it, these horrible acts, to make the piece have a punch."
The unforgettable opening scene melds the qualities of opera's dramatic theatricality and a film's exterior shot. The forest of black-barked trees towers as somberly as any Wagnerian woods, but also includes a 1967 Camaro. "The trees are like bars in a way, echoing the bars that are about to come," says Yeargan.
"The key to it was really the headlights," he continues. "We put special lamps in the car that could be focused so they didn't have such a wide spread; it's all about what you see in the headlights and what you didn't see." What the audience does see is a ghostly, flickering shadow-play as the teenage couple laugh, play, and disrobe, their fugitive nudity latticed between the pencil-thin beams and the trees, the doomed quarry of the two drunken brothers as they pounce like wolves.
Most of the action takes place in and around Louisiana's Angola Prison, which is represented by a system of modular cubes, stacks, and walls that can, in a moment, shift to become a cell, room, waiting area, or yard. "Dead Man Walking isn't like a conventional opera, where you can bring down a curtain and change a set, or even like a musical, where you can bring in a drop, and open it up and reveal something," says Yeargan. "That wouldn't be right for this."
In a system designed by associate technical director Larry Kline, the panels that form the cubes are made of a full-scale version of foamcore, laminated with plywood on either side. Says Yeargan, "It has a great deal of lightness and yet it is incredibly strong. It painted out beautifully. It didn't need any additional texturing because it looks like the flatness of concrete."
The cubes are as versatile in their connectivity as they are in their modularity. Technical director Patrick Markle says, "We had cored out the Styrofoam laminate within the wall panels so we could anticipate any additional cable runs; we added cables even before we got to the tech so that we could quickly add things. They had cables run into each individual cell with several circuits in each, even knowing there was a possibility that they may not use them."
"Once we hit on the idea of these stacked-up units that look like concrete cubes, and the idea that they were covered in scrim, we had to also find a way of getting rid of them. In some scenes they are there partway, so that we are still in the prison, but we're looking through them," says Yeargan. Fortunately, SFO is a very wide house with a good offstage space on either side, "so we used slip stages to bring furniture and people on and off."
The vast starkness of the prison yard, with its pale gridded sky, presents a dramatic contrast to the claustrophobia of the cells. Yeargan's cyclone fence, with its rosettes of razor wire, looks like a Louise Nevelson sculpture. "That material is actually a foam-rubber version of real razor wire used in film. We originally had the full spiral top rolls but when the grid was raised, we didn't have room in the flies," Yeargan says. "It made it too thick a unit, so we ended up flattening it out. I liked it so much here with function defining form." The vertical grid is made of black stretched rope coming through horizontal battens. "It is light and easy to handle and store and cheaper than wood or tubing. It always plays in silhouette."
Such simplicity was the rule of thumb throughout the production. Says Markle, "Within the stark abstraction of the prison, you could suggest everything you needed to with a single prop. Sister Helen's bedroom - a bed, a lamp, and a crucifix with a votive candle - and that's it. It tells you everything. In the prison cell, a chair and a radio. Prop mistress Lorrie Harrison bought a prison-issue stainless-steel toilet and sink, but it was more than we needed, and distracting, so it was cut. The process was more about tearing it down to the bare essentials."
One of the biggest challenges, notes Yeargan, was getting people in and out of the cubes. For example, in the final walk to death row sequence, "The cubes were full and we thought we were going to have to make some kind of black China silk capes or something, because the prisoners were wearing fairly light-colored clothes. But ultimately it turned out not to be a problem because Jennifer Tipton was fantastic with all of the lighting designs."
Sam Fleming's day job for 11 years has been associate costume designer for Phantom of the Opera. She has dressed shows for many mid-range companies, but San Francisco was her first "grand opera," and Dead Man Walking may be the company's first completely shopped opera. "When you shop a show," says Fleming, "you purposely make a plan not to build anything because you want the clothes to look like they came right off of a rack at a store." She tried very hard to use clothing that would be found in the South. "We did a bit of the shopping at thrift stores, but that's very time-consuming and you have to measure everything. When you go to a retail store, it's all sized out for you and you can return or exchange it."
Fleming succeeded in balancing the vulnerability of the victims' families in their pale, lightweight civilian clothes against the wear of the prison guards. As authentic as the guards' dress may have seemed to the audience, Fleming notes, "There are some things that you cannot reproduce accurately. They don't want anyone to be able to reproduce the uniform of a prison guard in order to engineer a jail break."
To help control the lighting, Fleming had to drab down her palette. "Even though you're trying to get a summery look, the light colors onstage competed with people's faces," she says. "Because most of the clothes were launderable, we dyed them down in the dye vat."
For LD Tipton, clothing was only one of many issues facing her. "In the San Francisco Opera, I knew that I would be lighting primarily from the side because if you work from overhead positions, it's very hard to change direct focus, and to be able to light the playing area separately from the cell block area would be a big challenge," she says, adding, "I knew that the light would come from the ladders."
The cubes provided a variety of lighting challenges. "When the blocks are used as empty prison cells," says Tipton, "the quality of light in each one is fluorescent. We decided that when it was a prison it would be only lit from behind with the prisoners as silhouettes and shadows. When the cells were used as memories or nightmares, there would be specific lights, to focus on faces."
In the parole-hearing scene, the actors are seated on benches on an area of the slip stage. "Being a moving stage, it's hard to have light stands sitting on the floor," says Tipton. "As soon as the scene was in place, lights are put in place to make sidelight and turned on. Then, before the scene dissolves, these lights have to go out before the slip stage goes off." Nimble lighting techs, waiting in the wings, pounce on the stages to quickly set and connect the portable instruments, and then just as quickly disconnect and take them away at the next change.
Exhausted after her struggles with the indifference of the prison's warden and the spiritual stubbornness of the condemned man, Sister Helen exits as the stage darkens and contracts to a stark hallway. Two working vending machines with glowing controls rise through a trap as an institutional fluorescent light is lowered on a batten, creating a joyless lounge. In a pit-of-the-stomach scene, the anguished nun tries to find a moment of solitary relief, only to be struck down by her sorrow. Tipton was concerned with making the scene look credible. "I tried to eliminate all the telltales," she says. "If you see any light hitting the pipe hanger or the cable, then that shows you that the light is coming from somewhere else and that it isn't the fixture."
The final harrowing scene depicting the inevitable execution is chillingly contemporary, with its depiction of capital punishment. No death by sword or lightning bolt here. "We felt that we needed some sort of coup-de-theatre for the end," says Yeargan. A crucifixion was nothing that was ever on the designer's mind, "It was just the shape of the gurney," said Yeargan. "They tilt it up so that the prisoner can face the witness room and say his last words. Then they tip it back for the actual injection. It's not something we invented. We wanted to open the prison out to have a bare space for the execution scene. When we took the prison units offstage as far as we could, you could still see the ends of them revealed. We really wanted it to be black, so they rigged a couple of black tabs to drop down and hide them. It gave the sense of black voids with the people isolated in the middle."
Though the medical paraphernalia is hidden behind a cinderblock wall at real executions, it is dramatized here with the intravenous application devices in plain view and attended by a nurse. The designers beefed up the machine by making it oversized, with flashing lights and electromechanical sound effects. "I didn't go to Angola, but we talked to the people who had done the movie and got drawings from them," says Yeargan. The filmmakers had gone directly to a company that makes execution systems to see the specifications of the lethal injection gurney used in that prison.
The space is small and enclosed like an operating room, demanding precise downlighting to properly define it. "The San Francisco Opera does have a goodly number of moving lights," said Tipton, "and all of them were focused on the gurney at the end. That is a good higher angle. The area is small, so it works very effectively to make the space quite concentrated."
For the record, Tipton's light plot includes eight Vari superscript *Lite VL5B[TM] units, 16 Strand Pirouette Automated PC units. The rest of her plot includes Robert Juliat Profiles; ETC Source Fours; Altman, Strand, and Mole-Richardson fresnels, Lycian followspots, Pani projectors, and CITC haze machines, all controlled by Strand consoles, with Strand dimmers.
Tipton continues, "Dead Man Walking was written cinematically - an opera doesn't usually have 17 scenes. This show was different in the size and the number of scenes, and therefore the fluidity needed. I thought it was quite satisfying and rewarding. It's a representation of the situation and not of expressing one's personal feelings about capital punishment."
The designers will pack up the same concrete cubes and the dramas they contain will be moving on to another season and another show, at Opera Pacific in Costa Mesa, CA.