Dead Man Walking is the first opera by Jake Heggie, with a libretto (based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean) by Terrence McNally; it was premiered by San Francisco Opera on October 7, 2000, with Susan Graham as Sister Helen, John Packard as Joseph De Rocher, and Frederica von Stade as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher. Patrick Summers conducted the San Francisco Opera Chorus and Orchestra.
The opera is set in Louisiana in the 1980s.
Prologue: A teenage boy and a teenage girl are parked near a secluded lake at night, on a date. They have the radio on in their car, and are making out to its music. The De Rocher brothers, hiding nearby, emerge from the shadows, quietly. One turns the radio off; the two brothers then attack the teens. Anthony grabs the boy, who begins struggling; Joseph attacks the girl and begins to rape her. The boy continues struggling until Anthony shoots him once, at the base of the skull, execution-style; this causes the girl to scream. In a panic, Joseph stabs her until she is silent.
Act I, scene 1: Hope House, Sister Helen's mission, run by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Medaille. Sister Helen, with the aid of some of the other sisters, is teaching the children a hymn; this hymn, "He Will Gather Us Around", becomes Helen's leitmotif during the course of the opera. After the children leave, Helen reveals to her colleagues that she has heard from an inmate she has been corresponding with, asking her to be his spiritual advisor, and that she has decided to accept. The sisters are shocked, warning Helen of the dangers of her position, but she is firm.
Scene 2: The drive to the prison. Helen drives to Angola State Prison and muses on her acceptance of De Rocher's offer. She is stopped by a motorcycle policeman for speeding, but he lets her off with a warning.
Scene 3: Angola State Prison. Helen arrives at the prison and is met by Father Grenville, the prison warden, who conducts her inside.
Scene 4: Father Grenville's office. Father Grenville criticizes Sister Helen's choice to work with De Rocher, claiming that the man is unreachable; he tells her that she's in over her head. Helen responds that it is her duty to attempt to help the man. Father Grenville leaves her to meet with Warden Benton, who asks many of the same questions and also criticizes her decision. He then conducts her to Death Row to meet with De Rocher.
Scene 5: Death Row. Warden Benton and Sister Helen walk through Death Row to reach the visiting room.
Scene 6: Death Row visiting room. Warden Benton conducts De Rocher into the visiting room. He is friendly and easy-going. They converse; he asks her to speak at the pardon board hearing on his behalf. He seems convinced that she will not return to help him; she assures him that such is not the case.
Scene 7: The pardon board hearing. Sister Helen is present with De Rocher's mother and two of his younger brothers, who plead with the pardon board on his behalf. One of Joseph's victims' parents lashes out at her in anger.
Scene 8: The courthouse parking lot. The four parents of De Rocher's victims speak angrily to his mother and to Sister Helen, who attempts to calm both sides in the debate. The parents accuse her of not understanding their pain and sorrow. Word comes from the pardon board; De Rocher has not been granted his wish. Barring intercession from the governor, he is to die for his crime.
Scene 9: Death Row visiting room. De Rocher is convinced that Helen has abandoned him; she enters, late, and tells him that she has not and will not. He is angry, and rejects all her suggestions to confess and make peace with his actions. The warden enters and tells Helen to leave at once.
Scene 10: The prison waiting room. Helen is attempting to find money to get food from the vending machine, having forgotten to eat. She begins to hear the voices, in her head, of the parents, the children at Hope House, Father Grenville, the motorcycle policeman, Warden Benton, and her colleagues, all telling her to stop attempting to help De Rocher. The warden enters to tell her that the governor has refused to act to save him, and gives Helen some money for the machine. She stands for a moment, then faints.
Act 2, scene 1: Joseph De Rocher's prison cell. A guard enters and tells De Rocher, who is doing pushups, that his execution date has been set for August 4. The guard leaves; Joseph muses on his fate.
Scene 2: Sister Helen's bedroom. Helen wakes up in terror from a nightmare, alarming Sister Rose, who begs her to stop working with De Rocher; Rose reminds her that she has yet to sleep well since she began helping him. Helen says she cannot; the two women pray for the strength to forgive De Rocher.
Scene 3: Joseph's cell. It is the evening of the date set for the execution. He and Sister Helen are talking; they discover they share a common love for Elvis. For the first time he admits that he is afraid. She reassures him, urging him to confess and make peace with what he has done; again he refuses. The warden enters and informs them that Mrs. De Rocher is there to see him.
Scene 4: The visiting room. Mrs. De Rocher and her two younger sons are there. Joseph visits with them, and attempts to apologize; she will have none of it, preferring to believe to the end that he is innocent. She complains that she baked him cookies, but was not allowed to bring them in. She then asks Helen to take a last picture of the four of them together with the camera in her purse. The guards lead Joseph away; she looks after him, reminiscing, near tears, eventually losing control. She thanks Helen for all that she has done; Helen promises to take the cookies for her.
Scene 5: Outside the Death House. Helen speaks with the victims' parents. One of them, Owen Hart, takes her aside and confesses that he is less sure of what he wants now than he was; he tells her that he and his wife have separated due to the stress they have felt. Helen attempts to console him; they agree to part as "Fellow victims of Joseph De Rocher".
Scene 6/7: Joseph's holding cell. Helen and De Rocher converse for one last time; once again she attempts to get him to confess to the murders. This time, something in him snaps; he breaks down and tells her the entire story. He expects Helen to hate him; instead, she says she forgives him, and that she will be "the face of love" for him. He thanks her. Father Grenville enters and begins the final preparations for the execution.
Scene 8: March to the execution chamber/The execution chamber. Guards, inmates, the warden, the parents, the chaplain, and protesters assembled outside the prison sing the Lord's Prayer as Sister Helen reads a passage from the book of Isaiah. They approach the death chamber, and Helen is separated from De Rocher. The warden asks if he has any last words; he says he does, and asks forgiveness from the parents of the murdered teenagers. The warden gives the nod, and the execution proceeds. De Rocher dies thanking Helen once again for her love; the opera ends as she stands over his body and sings her hymn one last time.
War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, October 7, 2000. The opera was so successful that an additional performance was added to the run.
San Francisco Opera Chorus, San Francisco Opera Orchestra
Patrick Summers, conductor
Production: Lotfi Mansouri
Stage direction: Joe Mantello
Set design: Michael Yeargen
Costume design: Sam Fleming
Lighting design: Jennifer Tipton
Musical preparation: Bryndon Hassman, Adelle Eslinger, John Churchwell, Ernest Frederick Knell, Sara Jobin
Critical reaction to the opera was generally favorable; in particular, critics praised the sharp, finely delineated performances by the principals and the simple yet effective production. "It was a triumph beyond what even its most optimistic boosters could have predicted" wrote the San Francisco Chronicle's critic. 
Many also found that McNally's libretto to be among the most finely crafted in recent memory: "...the splendid libretto -- by turns plainspoken and eloquent, with wonderful splashes of wry humor to lighten the tone when it most needs it -- creates the structural backbone of this wrenching drama".. Although not all of it has been set to music, McNally gave the libretto to Heggie with the express instructions to use whatever portions of it he felt necessary, and to discard the rest.
The opera has since been performed numerous times across the United States, and had its Australian premiere in 2002, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Joseph De Rocher. The Canadian premiere was in January 2006 in Calgary, Alberta. The European premiere was in May 2006 in the Semperoper in Dresden, Germany.
A 2 CD set, taken from the world premiere run of performances, was issued by Erato in 2002.