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Raised as a Missionary Baptist in a Texas trailer park, Michael Mayes knew his share of roughnecks and racists; they were his friends. When he first saw Dead Man Walking, the opera based on Sister Helen Prejean’s book about her experiences accompanying two men toward state execution, Mayes realized he had insights about the lead character that most people in the classical-music world didn’t possess: Joseph De Rocher, a murderer and a rapist, was not that different from many of the people he’d grown up with. To prepare for the role, Mayes lost fifty pounds, built muscles and shaved his otherwise coiffed head into a skinhead hairdo. “I look like a maniac,” the opera singer jokes.
When her book was turned into an opera, Prejean asked that it be something people could sing along to rather than an atonal and obscure score. The music, written by Jack Heggie, fits that bill, while Terrence McNally’s libretto forces audiences to contemplate the ethics of the death penalty from the perspectives of both the victims’ families and the murderers’.
Dead Man Walking runs through July 23 at the Central City Opera House, 124 Eureka Street in Central City. Tickets range from $20 to $90 and can be purchased at centralcityopera.org or by calling 303-292-6700.