Friday 24 February 2023

On 'Dead Man Walking': baritone Michael Lafferty on learning the role of Joseph de Rocher in Jake Heggie's opera for its Guildhall School performances next week

Michael Mayes as Joseph de Rocher in 2019
Michael Mayes as Joseph de Rocher in 2019

On 27 February 2023, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama presents Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking in a new production directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans and conducted by Dominic Wheeler. In advance of the production, we hear from Michael Lafferty who is one of the two baritones sharing the role of Joseph de Rocher. Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean, the opera premiered in 2000 in San Francisco, but only received its UK premiere in 2018 at the Barbican in a semi-staged performance with Joyce DiDonato and Michael Mayes. The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland gave the work's UK stage premiere in 2019. 

Here, Michael Lafferty talks about exploring the role of Joseph de Rocher.

This production of Dead Man Walking is certainly one of the most ambitious we’ve staged so far, and I think we all feel it too. It’s such a huge work. The opera is so intricate, from the complicated scene changes to the depth of the material. It’s an intensive rehearsal process, and it takes a vast amount of concentration. 

The two leading roles of Sister Helen Prejean and Joseph De Rocher require a big sing. In addition to the vocalism, range, dynamic colour and the musical writing, it is also an incredibly hard-hitting real-life story. To me, knowing that these characters were real hits home more than other works; there is something about performing the role of a death row inmate in the 80s that is more real than a Verdi or Mozart work set in the 18th or 19th century. Knowing that we are portraying characters based on real lives is a daunting task, but one with great privilege. 

Whilst preparing for this production we had the opportunity to speak to Sister Helen Prejean, the author of the memoir Dead Man Walking, whose real-life story inspired composer Jake Heggie to write his opera. After our zoom call with her, it all became so much more real. Everyone involved in the production had the chance to speak directly to both Sister Helen and Jake, and in that conversation, we were able to get a sense of her presence; she’s such a strong character. When we were speaking with them, we were able to understand the why behind the creation of this piece – you can tell that they both really believe in the importance of telling this story. Sister Helen was incredibly supportive of our art, encouraging us to highlight the truth that lies at the heart of this opera. 

I connect more with the work because of its contemporary roots, not just the story, but also through the music: the blues and zydeco elements give it such an interesting and unique feel. I grew up around blues and country music, so it was easy to connect to the familiar sounds. It has, however, been a big challenge to take on the role and get into the mindset of the character of Joseph, trying to play a man who knows all these details about the end of his life: he not only knows that he’s going to die but also when he’s going to die, how he’s going to die and who will be doing it – it’s an unnatural feeling. 

It’s been emotionally challenging as well, as a real actor portraying this character – sometimes the lines get a bit blurred between the two. Throughout the rehearsal process, we’ve been encouraged to leave our characters at the door. When you finish the rehearsal, do something else; wash your mind, wash your hands of the character you’ve just portrayed. As abstract as that sounds, it is a good way to think of it. When you’re portraying someone who’s on death row, it’s a real feeling of fear, the actual terror that builds and builds. In our studio run, my colleague Patrick (who also plays Joseph de Rocher in the alternating cast) and I both felt the weight of all the preparation, rehearsals and development, and it all came out in tears, which surprised us both! But when you walk out of the room you have to let it all go. 

Throughout this process, I’ve been trying to pinpoint what it means to take on a character with questionable morals. With characters such as Don Giovanni, whose morals lead him through an unknown path of not knowing he will die, capturing the fear of death is only in those final surprising moments of the opera. Whereas Joseph’s fear echoes throughout the opera, with his terror building up throughout. 

I think the big thing we've been talking about in the rehearsals is that it's not a whodunnit opera. It's very clear from the beginning: we know that this man is guilty of something, but to what extent he's guilty – that’s the kind of question that we're asking. Dead Man Walking challenges you throughout by telling stories from so many sides; we have a vast array of characters: Joseph's mother; Joseph’s brothers; Sister Helen; the parents of the murder victims. This opera is filled with powerful scenes, where the characters all have varying views on whether Joseph should live or die; from one scene to the next you might feel differently towards him, depending on how he interacts with other characters, his attitude or his remorse (or lack thereof). There is a confessional scene that dredges all the depths of emotions that you can possibly fathom – the moments of darkness are matched with this strange elation, a curveball for the audience. The story moves through emotion all the time, almost like an operatic rollercoaster.

The rehearsal process has also had its share of tough and fun moments. The funny things in the rehearsal room tend to make the most gruelling scenes a bit lighter. At the beginning of Act Two, we’re in Joseph’s cell and he starts doing push-ups. It’s written in the score – notated and rhythmic – so that's also quite tricky to get together with an orchestra. By the end of this scene, with Joseph alone in his cell, he goes through a whole range of thoughts, and he starts doing push-ups again, by which point he’s done about 30, but he keeps doing the push-ups until the curtain shutter comes down, whilst the orchestra goes crazy. In the Stage and Piano Rehearsal there was a slight delay, meaning that the music kept going but the curtains were coming down very slowly… I kept with my push-ups, but getting progressively more tired and slow, and at one point screaming for the curtains to come down! At that moment everyone just disintegrated with laughter, and it’s now given me a really positive memory of quite a painful scene. The moments of lightness do really carry you through and provide you with sparks of joy that keep you going.

It's a real privilege to be studying opera at Guildhall School. We're very lucky to have Dominic Wheeler and Martin Lloyd-Evans, and everyone else involved in making that course so special. They try and make it as close to a professional opera house as possible, and we’re held to very high standards.

I’ve always been surrounded by music, as my parents are very musical, but it wasn't until I joined a choir that my mum suggested I get some singing lessons. When I was about 16 I went to see The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Opera House – I had cheap tickets, for about 10 quid and spent most of the opera looking at a pole! I was very moved simply by how humans could make that noise. Just to be able to express so much in such a wide variety of colours, with one voice – I just thought that was amazing and fascinating.

I’ll definitely miss this production of Dead Man Walking once we’ve finished, especially the rest of the cast. It feels as if we’ve all been spending every waking minute together, particularly Patrick and I – we’re taking the time to go down to the gym (and prepare for the push-ups), but also making sure we understand the facets of our character. We’ve had long chats about things, whether that be sharing ideas or constructive criticism – either way, I think we’ve found a good balance. It’s been a huge challenge, but easier knowing we’re all going through this together. And ultimately, it's the challenging moments which make you stronger in the future. 

Written by Michael Lafferty 

Michael Lafferty
Michael Lafferty
Michael Lafferty is a baritone in his second year of the Opera Course at Guildhall School of Music & Drama. He will be singing the role of Joseph De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking on 27 February and 3 March at Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School. We last caught Michael Lafferty in the role of Black in the UK premiere of Pablo Sorozábal's Black, el Payaso at the Grimeborn Festival at the Arcola Theatre last year, see my review.

Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking is directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans, conducted by Dominic Wheeler with designs by Anna Reid; the production runs from 27 February – 6 March 2023, with Alexandre Meier and Alexandra Achillea Pouta as Sister Helen, Lorna McLean and Faryl Smith as Sister Rose, and Michael Lafferty and Patrick Dow as Joseph de Rocher.

Full details from the Guildhall School website.

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