Opera, Death, and Abolition: Thoughts on the Met Debut of Dead Man Walking

Jungmin Kang

On September 26, 2023, Dead Man Walking made its debut on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera. Already the “most widely performed opera of the last 20 years,” the opera is an adaptation of a memoir by the same name, written by Sister Helen Prejean about her own journey working with imprisoned men who were sentenced to the death penalty.[1]

From Joyce DiDonato’s standout performance as Sister Prejean to Jake Heggie’s incredible score, there is so much I could talk about that made this production great. It really opened my eyes to the potential of new opera—that it really can be relevant to the audience of today, elevating immediacy and accessibility without losing the grandeur and musical beatitude which makes up the foundation of so many purist soapboxes.

But for this post, I will bring into the spotlight three directorial choices that contributed to some of the most memorable moments in the show—choices that surprisingly brought me back to the feelings of confusion and frustration I had sitting in my first-year criminal law class.

First is the choice to begin the opera with a video. It is a video of the crime that begins the whole story of Joseph de Rocher (the man sentenced to death), and it leverages all the strengths of the filmic medium to bring the audience in close to the violence and set the tone for a recurring question—how do we respond to violence as a community?[2] Throughout the performance, the lingering effects of this distressing opening drives the audience into the position of a thinking, feeling participant in the narrative, forcing them to navigate complicated feelings of anger, grief, and pity, both towards the sentenced man and everyone surrounding him.

Second is the production’s use of cameras on stage, the live feed for which is transmitted to an enormous box-like screen hanging over center stage. When Sister Prejean first visits the prison and is confronted with a pushing, pulling, chaotic mass of people, the camera operators move through the mob, giving the audience a chance to be immersed at stage-level in the lawless confusion dominating the imprisoned population. And during a climactic scene in which the cameras focus on Prejean and de Rocher each sitting in their rooms, the split video feed projects —at once and side-by-side—the crushing torment of de Rocher and the agonizing grief of Sister Prejean.

Last is the final scene—the execution. This moment of de Rocher’s death is characterized by a lack of singing. In fact, it is completely silent. The entire 3,800-person Met Opera auditorium watches the man die with no music, no dialogue, and basically no movement on stage. The only moving figure is the medical assistant, who wheels in an anesthesia cart and starts an IV. The heart monitor shows the heart rate of a panicking person, then flatlines. The eerie verisimilitude of the ritual holds the audience captive and evokes a piercing feeling of tragedy that—at least in my mind—culminates in the question of “what are we actually doing here?”[3]

Criticism of capital punishment is not new. Scholars and practitioners have long pointed out that the death penalty has become disconnected from any objective of justice or deterrence—that the determination of who is sentenced to death is now a matter of who has access to quality legal representation or simply one of arbitrary and racist structures played out.[4] Some critics have also pointed to the fact that the Supreme Court’s development of twisted death penalty jurisprudence is designed not to uphold values of fairness, but rather to legitimize the criminal justice system as it endures today.[5] However, I wonder how many people in the audience of Dead Man Walking would have been privy to the existence of this literature.

I believe this production, through the medium of opera and several inspired directorial choices, was able to offer up to new audience questions that are the beginning of anti-death penalty advocacy. By presenting them with the pain and suffering of all who are affected by violence— not only the violence of a crime, but the violence of the criminal justice system—the production asks us to examine our feelings about “criminals” as people, and whether we believe the system is working as intended, in service of fairness and justice. It asks us if we really believe in a system where men like Joseph de Rocher are given not a chance for redemption or rehabilitation, but a cold and silent death.


[1] Dead Man Walking, Metro. Opera, https://www.metopera.org//season/2023-24-season/dead-man-walking/?INSTITUTION_LOGOUT=true [https://perma.cc/B4CT-NDP6] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240224201041/https://www.metopera.org//season/2023-24-season/dead-man-walking/?INSTITUTION_LOGOUT=true].

[2] Meghan J. Clark, ‘Dead Man Walking’: An Operatic Exploration of Sister Helen Prejean’s Death Row Ministry, Am.: Jesuit Rev. (Oct. 03, 2023), https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2023/10/03/review-dead-man-walking-opera-246192 [https://perma.cc/HE3C-3CMN] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240224202651/https://www.americamagazine.org/arts-culture/2023/10/03/review-dead-man-walking-opera-246192].

[3] Jeremy Faust, A Physician's Perspective on 'Dead Man Walking' the Opera, Inside Med. (Sep. 24, 2023), https://insidemedicine.substack.com/p/a-physicians-perspective-on-dead [https://perma.cc/F8UD-GWZW] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240224202929/https://insidemedicine.substack.com/p/a-physicians-perspective-on-dead].

[4] Stephen B. Bright, Counsel for the Poor: The Death Sentence Not for the Worst Crime but for the Worst Lawyer, 103 Yale. L. J. 1835 (1993); Kirk Johnson, Washington State Supreme Court Deems Death Penalty Unconstitutional, N.Y. Times (Oct. 11, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/11/us/death-penalty-ruling-washington-state.html [https://perma.cc/SZ4T-NR75] [https://web.archive.org/web/20240224203048/https://www.nytimes.com/2018/10/11/us/death-penalty-ruling-washington-state.html].

[5] Carol S. Steiker & Jordan M. Steiker, Sober Second Thoughts: Reflections on Two Decades of Constitutional Regulation of Capital Punishment, 109 Harv. L. Rev. 355 (1995).