A few years ago, the Eugene Opera seemed moribund — a “dead man walking,” to use the phrase applied in prison to an inmate condemned to death. But in the past couple of years, it’s gotten a reprieve — or rather engineered a resurrection. Instead of taking the timid, ultimately self-defeating course of pandering to an aging core audience with endless recyclings of the same top ten operatic/symphonic warhorses (see: Portland Opera, Eugene Symphony, Oregon Symphony) by dead European composers, artistic director Mark Beudert decided to embrace the present and future, choosing contemporary American works by the great West Coast composer John Adams (Nixon in China) and, opening this weekend, Dead Man Walking by another acclaimed Bay Area-based star, Jake Heggie.
Since its premiere in 2000, Heggie and playwright Terrence McNally’s compelling opera has put the lie to two tired myths about contemporary classical music to rest: that it never survives beyond its premiere (it’s been produced over 30 times) and that it has to be musically off-putting. Heggie knows how to write engagingly for voice; he could have easily been a Broadway composer. Based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean (later turned into a powerful movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn), Dead Man Walking, which chronicles a nun’s struggle to help a condemned murderer find redemption, is perfectly suited for the high drama and passion that opera does so well.
How can Eugene Opera succeed by looking forward when so many other conservative classical music institutions go so rigidly retro? First, it makes sense that contemporary audiences — not the supposedly close-minded core audiences so many companies build their subscription series around, but the broad audience of people who love music — will be interested in art that deals with contemporary concerns. Second, the opera has embedded it, like Nixon, in a larger tapestry of city wide events — Prisons, Compassion, and Peace — that started in January and continues with a conference at the UO Law School and other events at the Eugene Public Library, City Club, Downtown Initiative for the Visual Arts and more, including talks by Sister Prejean and Heggie. (See the Opera’s website for details.) By explicitly connecting contemporary classical music to contemporary culture, Eugene Opera is helping make opera relevant to 21st-century Oregon.