Dead Man Walking


He’s a convicted killer. She’s devoted her life to God. What could they possibly have to say to one another?

A true story that spawned a best-selling book and an Academy Award-winning movie, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking tells of Sister Helen Prejean and her time as spiritual advisor to Joseph de Rocher, a murderer on death row. The most performed new American opera of the 21st Century, Dead Man Walking “makes the most concentrated impact of any piece of American music theater since West Side Story.” (The Guardian).

Don’t miss this magnificent work that will penetrate your heart and mind, starring superstar mezzo-soprano and Georgia native Jamie Barton as Sister Helen and Michael Mayes as de Rocher.

A co-production of The Israeli Opera, previously performed at New Orleans Opera

Performed in English with English supertitles

Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre


Dead Man Walking contains simulated cigarette smoking, gunshots, strong language, simulated nudity, violence, and a graphic depiction of a sexual assault. Not recommended for audience members under the age of 15.



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Get the Feeling

Photos by Tom Grosscup for New Orleans Opera

Approximate runtime: 2 hours 40 minutes including 1 intermission


Composer: Jake Heggie
Librettist: Terrence McNally
Premiere Date: October 7, 2000, San Francisco Opera


Two teenagers are brutally murdered by Joseph and Anthony De Rocher.

Act I

In a poor New Orleans school, Sister Helen and Sister Rose teach a hymn to a group of children. Helen is distracted as she thinks about her plan to visit Angola State Penitentiary where her new pen pal, a death row inmate named Joseph De Rocher, has asked her to visit. Against Rose’s advice, Helen makes the long drive to Angola and ponders the momentous step she is taking. A motor cop stops her for speeding, but lets her off with a warning, asking her to pray for his sick mother. As she resumes her journey, she prays for guidance.

When she arrives, Helen is greeted by the prison chaplain, Father Grenville. On the way to his office, they see inmates engaged in a rough game of basketball. Helen and Grenville then have a tense meeting in which the chaplain angrily warns her that she is wasting her time, and that Joseph is beyond anyone’s help. The prison warden arrives and tells her that Joe is likely to ask her to become his spiritual advisor to help prepare him for his execution. As she walks to the death row section of the prison, Helen is taunted by the inmates.

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Joe and Helen have an awkward first meeting. Hiding his fear with bravado, he tests her tolerance by recalling the pleasures he has known with women. Helen calls his bluff and Joe admits his fear. He requests that she be his spiritual advisor and both acknowledge they “can’t do it alone.” Joe asks her to accompany his mother to the Pardon Board hearing and Helen agrees.

In a courtroom setting, the frightened Mrs. De Rocher does her best to plead for her son’s life: she is a small woman in the face of enormous hostility. During her testimony, Owen Hart, the father of the murdered teenage girl, explodes with anger and recounts the grisly details of his daughter’s murder. In anguish, Joseph’s mother responds that another killing cannot undo what has been done.

After the hearing, Joseph’s family and the murder victims’ families wait for a verdict outside the courtroom. Helen introduces herself to the parents and they express their grief at never seeing their children again. News arrives that the appeal has been turned down: Joseph will be executed.

Back in the visiting room, Helen tells Joe that an appeal has been made to the governor. Angered by his selfishness, she urges him to acknowledge his guilt and seek forgiveness, but he sees no hope and blames his brother for the murders. The warden appears suddenly and insists that she leave. Helen has had no time to eat and becomes faint from hunger, stress, and exhaustion. As she looks for change at a vending machine, a jumble of conflicting voices clutter her mind. The warden tells her that the governor has turned down the appeal: “Joseph De Rocher is a dead man.” The voices in her head grow louder and Helen faints.

Act II

Joseph is counting pushups when the warden comes to tell him that his execution date has been set: August 4, midnight. Alone, Joe voices feelings about his impending death, Sister Helen, and his murder victims.

Helen awakens from a nightmare about Joe and the murdered teenagers. Rose comforts her and helps her admit that she still has to find the strength to forgive Joe herself, just as mothers forgive their children’s failings.

On the night of Joe’s execution, Helen tells him about seeing Elvis Presley in person when she was a girl. Somehow, their shared love of Elvis opens a door between them and they are able to laugh as friends. She once more urges Joe to admit his guilt and find forgiveness. The warden announces that Joe’s family has come to see him for the last time.

Joe has a tearful farewell with his mother and two younger brothers. Joe begs his mother to forgive him, but she says she believes what he has always told her: that he is innocent and there is nothing to forgive. Mrs. De Rocher seeks comfort in her recollections of Joe’s innocent childhood. When Joe is led away, his mother falls apart, consoled by Helen with assurances that there is good in her son and that God’s love is not denied him. Left alone, Helen panics for a moment as she contemplates the harrowing task she faces that night.

The parents of the murder victims have arrived to witness the execution. They upbraid Helen for siding with the murderer, rejecting her words of consolation. Only Owen Hart voices doubts about the value of the execution. Helen offers him friendship and promises to visit him.

After the guards prepare Joseph for execution, Helen is alone with him one last time. In the few moments remaining, Helen begs him to tell the truth. She reveals that she has visited the crime scene and asks him to relive that night. Reluctantly, Joseph tells her the whole story and, breaking down in sobs, admits his guilt. Helen assures him of forgiveness: not only hers, but God’s as well. She tells him she will be the face of love for him when he dies.

The warden calls out, “Dead man walking.” As he escorts Joseph to the execution chamber, Father Grenville intones the Lord’s Prayer, echoed by the voices of inmates, nuns, guards, and parents. Helen remains close to Joe, reading to him from the Bible. She is allowed this one time to touch him, and she puts her hand reassuringly on his back. When they reach the chamber, she is barred from going any further. Joseph and Helen exchange an emotional good-bye. She reminds him to look for her as she takes her place with the others in the viewing room. After being strapped to the execution table, Joseph asks the parents’ forgiveness. In silence, with only his heartbeat audible, the lethal injection is administered. In his final moment, Joseph says to Sister Helen: “I love you.” After his death, the witnesses leave and Helen is alone with Joseph. One last time, she sings her comforting hymn: “He will gather us around.” 

Courtesy of Jake Heggie

Characters & Cast

Sister Helen Prejean

A nun with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille who befriends convicted killer Joseph De Rocher.

Jamie Barton

Mezzo-soprano and Georgia native Jamie Barton is a highly sought after artist who has been hailed as “a great artist, no question with an imperturbable steadiness of tone…” (The Guardian).

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Joseph De Rocher

A death row inmate who forms an unlikely friendship with Sister Helen.

Michael Mayes

Baritone Michael Mayes has been praised for his “powerful” voice and “arresting stage presence.” 


Mrs. De Rocher

Joseph’s grieving mother who maintains his innocence and finds solace through Sister Helen.

Maria Zifchak

Hailed as a “rich-voiced mezzo-soprano” (New York Times), Maria Zifchak returns to The Atlanta Opera after singing the role of Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd.


Sister Rose

A nun with the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Medaille who tries to be the voice of reason for her friend Sister Helen.

Karen Slack

Hailed by critics for possessing a lustrous voice, soprano Karen Slack has performed with major conductors in opera houses and concert halls around the world.


George Benton

Warden at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Kevin Burdette

American bass Kevin Burdette has already impressed audiences on both sides of the Atlantic with his mellifluous voice and strongly dramatic characterizations.


Father Grenville

Chaplain at Louisiana State Penitentiary.

Jay Hunter Morris

A veteran of the operatic and concert stages, Morris’ 2016-17 season began with a revival of one of his greatest roles, including Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick at the Dallas Opera.


Owen Hart

Father of the murdered teenage girl.

Wayne Tigges

Quickly establishing himself as one of the bright young stars in opera today, Wayne Tigges has sung at many of the great opera houses of the world, including The Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, and Paris Opera.


A First Timer’s Guide

The Opera Experience

Operas on our mainstage are grand theatrical experiences. You can always expect the unexpected, and for our productions to be presented at the highest quality.


Many operas are in a foreign language. Supertitles are similar to subtitles in a film, except they are projected above the stage. These translations will help you follow what’s happening on stage.

What to Wear

There is no dress code at The Opera and you will see everything from jeans to evening gowns and formal suits. Most people use it as a chance to enjoy dressing up in their own style.

Arriving in Good Time

If you are late, you will be escorted to the nearest late seating area. At intermission ushers will show you to your seat. Plan ahead to arrive with extra time.

Directions & Parking at Cobb Energy Center

Enhance Your Visit

Pre-Performance Talk

Learn about the history of the opera, the composer, and more from artists and opera aficionados. One hour prior to curtain. Free with your ticket!

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Familiarizing Yourself with the Story

Because of the foreign languages, classical music, and often complex plots, you will very likely enjoy the performance better if you spend a few minutes familiarizing yourself with the story and characters in advance. Some people even like to listen to the music in advance and others prefer to let it wash over them during the show and perhaps look it up afterwards.

Visit our Study Guides Library

How is an Opera Staged?


Actors first audition for roles up to a year in advance, or for more experienced artists, directors also invite them to play a role.


Most of the rehearsals are held in our rehearsal hall, and not the actual theatre. The conductor begins orchestra rehearsals about a week and half before opening night. They have four rehearsals with the conductor, and then the singers are added into the mix.

Sets & Costumes

The Atlanta Opera Costume Shop alters the costumes to fit our singers. Sometimes they do have to make costumes if there aren’t enough, or if there is nothing that fits, etc. Once the sets are in place, the cast begins rehearsing at the theatre. The Opera production staff works with staff at the theatre to get all of the lighting and technical aspects of the production together.

Sitzprobe & Dress Rehearsal

The orchestra comes together with the singers in a special rehearsal called sitzprobe. There are no costumes during the sitzprobe, this is mainly to hear the voices with the orchestra. There is a piano dress rehearsal, when the singers rehearse in full costume for the first time so they can get used to wearing them. Finally, all of the pieces are put together for two full dress rehearsals leading up to opening night.


Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie is the American composer of the operas Dead Man Walking (libretto by Terrence McNally), Moby-Dick (libretto by Gene Scheer), It’s A Wonderful Life (Scheer), Great Scott (McNally), Three Decembers (Scheer), To Hell and Back (Scheer), Out of Darkness: Two Remain (Scheer), At the Statue of Venus (McNally) and The Radio Hour: A Choral Opera (Scheer). He is currently at work on If I Were You (Scheer) a new opera based on the Faustian story by Julian Green, commissioned by the Merola Opera Program for Summer of 2019. Heggie has also composed nearly 300 art songs, as well as concerti, chamber music, choral and orchestral works, including the Ahab Symphony.

The operas – most created with the distinguished writers Terrence McNally or Gene Scheer – have been produced on five continents. In February 2017, Dead Man Walking received its 50th international production at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC in a new production by director Francesca Zambello. Since its San Francisco Opera premiere in 2000, Dead Man Walking has been performed more than 300 times and recorded live twice (Erato Records in 2001; Virgin Classics in 2011). In addition to major productions throughout the USA, Dead Man Walking has been seen in Dresden, Vienna, Sydney, Adelaide, Calgary, Montreal, Cape Town, Dublin, Copenhagen, and Malmö, with future production set for Vancouver, Madrid and London. Moby-Dick has received seven international productions since its 2010 premiere at The Dallas Opera with future productions in the USA and Europe. The San Francisco Opera production was telecast as part of Great Performances’ 40th anniversary season and released on DVD (EuroArts). Moby-Dick received its East Coast premiere at the Kennedy Center in 2014. It is also the subject of a book by Robert Wallace, titled Heggie & Scheer’s Moby-Dick – A Grand Opera for the 21st Century (UNT Press). Three Decembers, Heggie & Scheer’s three-character chamber opera, has received nearly 20 productions internationally.

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In 2016, Heggie was awarded the Eddie Medora King Prize by the UT Austin Butler School of Music. He was also the recipient of the Champion Award from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus in a private concert that featured a performance by the great Patti LuPone. Heggie was the keynote speaker for the 2016 meeting of the National Association of Schools of Music in Dallas, and this year, he will give commencement addresses at Eastman’s Jacobs School of Music and Northwestern’s Bienen School of Music. A Guggenheim Fellow, he served for three years as a mentor for Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative. He is a frequent guest artist and master teacher at universities and conservatories, including Boston University, Bucknell, Cincinnati Conservatory, Cornell, Eastman, CU Boulder, Northwestern, The Royal Conservatory in Toronto, UNI, UNT, UT Austin, USC’s Thornton School, Vanderbilt University, and at festivals such as SongFest at the Colburn School, Ravinia Festival, and VISI in Vancouver.

Jake Heggie has collaborated as composer and pianist with some of the world’s most loved singers, including sopranos Kiri Te Kanawa, Renée Fleming, Ailyn Pérez, Heidi Stober, Karen Slack, Talise Trevigne, Kristin Clayton, Ann Moss, Caitlin Lynch and Lisa Delan; mezzo-sopranos Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, Jamie Barton, Suzanne Mentzer, Joyce Castle, Elise Quagliata, Catherine Cook and Sasha Cooke; Broadway stars Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald; tenors Ben Heppner, William Burden, Stephen Costello, Jay Hunter Morris, Paul Groves and Jonathan Blalock; baritones Keith Phares, Nathan Gunn, Morgan Smith, Rod Gilfry, Bryn Terfel, Michael Mayes and Robert Orth. He has also worked closely with extraordinary instrumentalists such as flutists Carol Wincenc and Lorna McGhee; violinists Leila Josefowicz, Aloysia Friedmann and Dawn Harms; cellists Matt Haimowitz, Emil Miland and Anne Martindale-Williams; pianists Jon Kimura Parker and Gustavo Romero; as well as the Brentano String Quartet and the Alexander String Quartet. Directors who have championed his work include Leonard Foglia, Joe Mantello, Francesca Zambello and Jack O’Brien. All of Heggie’s major opera premieres have been led by Patrick Summers; he has also worked closely with conductors John DeMain, Joseph Mechavich and Nicole Paiement.

Jake Heggie lives in San Francisco with his husband, Curt Branom.

Composer of Operas


Terrence McNally

Playwright Terrence McNally was born in 1939 and grew up in Corpus Christi, Texas, listening to radio broadcasts of The Green Hornet and the Metropolitan Opera. McNally’s love of the opera and especially of the famous diva Maria Callas would surface in his work, most notably in his Tony award-winning Master Class (1996). His love of music also inspired him to collaborate on several musicals, including The Rink (1984), Kiss of the Spider Woman (1993), and Ragtime (1996).

Graduating Phi Beta Kappa from Columbia in 1960 with a degree in English, McNally enjoyed a fellowship in Mexico where he wrote a play that earned the attention of the Actors Studio and got him a job as a stage manager, allowing him to acquire some practical theatre experience. In 1961, he enjoyed bonding with John Steinbeck and his family, on tour with them through Europe as the Steinbeck children’s tutor.  After McNally’s first Broadway play And Things That Go Bump in the Night flopped, gaining notoriety for being 1964’s most scandalous, he went forward working odd jobs until his subsequent and successful play Next elevated him to full-time playwright status.

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From the macabre to the farcical, the range of McNally’s satire and drama borrows from his personal life and his personal understanding of the world. McNally’s plays about homophobia, love, fear, and AIDS, among other things, illuminate the dominant theme of how people connect and fail to connect. McNally has no fear of offending as he explores new territories with his pen. His controversial 1999 play Corpus Christi dramatized a homosexual version of Jesus Christ, drawing mobs of angry protesters to his home theater at the Manhattan Theatre Club, and inciting a fatwa or death sentence from a Muslim group in England.

Despite the controversy surrounding some of his plays, Terrence McNally is one of the most beloved and prolific modern-day playwrights. Besides the afore-mentioned, some of his other notable credits include: The Ritz (1975), Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune (1987), The Lisbon Traviata (1989), Andre’s Mother (1990), Lips Together, Teeth Apart (1991), and Love! Valour! Compassion! (1994). In addition to four Tony Awards, McNally has received two Guggenheim Fellowships, a Rockefeller Grant, the Lucille Lortel Award, the Hull-Warriner Award, and a citation from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.



Joseph Mechavich

Conductor Joseph Mechavich is known for his exceptional artistry and infectious energy which he brings to every performance. His passion and commitment to excellence in the art form has helped his forge strong personal and career-defining relationships with a number of opera companies and orchestras in the United States and abroad.

Maestro Mechavich has presided over productions of Porgy and Bess for Deutsche Oper Berlin, Nixon in China for Auckland Philharmonia/New Zealand Opera, Il barbiere de Siviglia for The Washington National Opera, Madama Butterfly for New York City Opera, Florencia en el Amazonas for Arizona Opera and Romeo et Juliette for Florida Grand Opera. “One of the best things about this production [Romeo et Juliette] is the conducting of Joseph Mechavich, who led the proceedings superbly…You rarely hear this score with the kind of big-boned force with which Gounod wrote it, but Mechavich let it rip, with first rate results.” (Palm Beach Artspaper)



Tomer Zvulun

General and Artistic Director of The Atlanta Opera since 2013, Tomer Zvulun is also one of opera’s most exciting stage directors, earning consistent praise for his creative vision, often described as cinematic and fresh. His work has been presented by prestigious opera houses around the world, including The Metropolitan Opera, the opera companies of Seattle, San Diego, Dallas, Boston, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Buenos Aires, Wexford, New Orleans, Minnesota and Wolf Trap, as well as leading educational institutes and universities such as The Juilliard School, Indiana University, Boston University, and IVAI in Tel Aviv. His debut in New York was in a new production of L’heure espagnole and Gianni Schicchi at Juilliard Opera Center that was praised by The New York Times for its “witty, fast-paced staging and the director’s Felliniesque style.”

Known for creating innovative, visually striking new interpretations for standard operas as well as championing new works by contemporary composers, his work has been seen internationally in Europe, South and Central America, Israel, and the US. Recently he created critically acclaimed new productions of Semele (Seattle Opera) Lucia di Lammermoor (Seattle, Atlanta, Cleveland), La bohème (Seattle, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Atlanta), Lucrezia Borgia (Buenos Aires), Gianni Schicchi (Juilliard, IVAI Tel Aviv), L’heure espagnole (Juilliard), The Magic Flute (Cincinnati, Atlanta, Indiana University), Don Giovanni (Wolf Trap, Cincinnati), Die Fledermaus (Dallas, Kansas City), Falstaff (Wolf Trap, Des Moines), Rigoletto (Boston, Atlanta, Omaha), Madama Butterfly (Atlanta, Castleton Festival), Tosca (National Theatre Panama, Atlanta) and Dialogues of the Carmelites (IVAI Tel Aviv), among many others.

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His passion for producing new works by living composers was realized in the acclaimed European premiere of Kevin Puts’ Silent Night at Wexford Festival Opera in 2014. The production won two Irish Times Awards and will be remounted at The Glimmerglass Festival and Washington National Opera.
In 2015-16 he created a new production of Soldier Songs (David T. Little) as a part of the award-winning Discoveries Series in Atlanta in a production that traveled to San Diego Opera. He then went on to create an acclaimed new production of Dead Man Walking that marked his return to New Orleans Opera. This was his second collaboration with composer Jake Heggie following his new production of Three Decembers at Boston University.

Some of his upcoming projects include the world premiere of the new opera Dinner at Eight (Bolcom) at Minnesota Opera, followed by the European premiere at Wexford Festival, new productions of Maria de Buenos Aires and Die Fliegende Holländer in Atlanta, a new Giulio Cesare for the Israeli Opera (Acco Festival), a new Eugene Onegin at Kansas City and a revival of his acclaimed production of La bohème in Dallas.

Since taking the leadership in Atlanta he increased the operations of the company from 12 to 26 performances per season, while stabilizing the financials. Some of his noted achievements include launching the successful Discoveries Series, a program that presents new contemporary works and rarely done operas in alternative venues, creating the first young artist program in the company’s history, and doubling the company annual fundraising.

His work at The Atlanta Opera earned the company an international reputation by earning numerous awards and prizes, including a nomination for the 2016 International Opera Awards in London, the selection of the acclaimed Discoveries Series in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Best of 2015 list, and his recent nomination for the 2016 Atlanta Luminary awards.

As a stage director, he made his debut in Atlanta with a critically acclaimed Der Fliegende Holländer in 2009, a production which led to a series of memorable new co-productions with sister opera companies including The Magic Flute, Lucia di Lammermoor, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto, La bohème, and Romeo and Juliet.

During his 7 years at the Metropolitan Opera, Tomer has directed revivals of Tosca and Carmen, and worked on a number of new productions, most notably La rondine, La traviata, La fille du régiment, Iphigénie en Tauride, and Manon. Tomer was born and raised in Israel, served as a medic in a combat unit in IDF, attended the Tel Aviv Open University and The Harvard Business School executive program.

TZ New Headshot 2013