Michael Mayes on Dead Man Walking, Cut and Shoot, Texas, and social-justice opera

Growing up in an East Texas trailer park gave Michael Mayes an edge on the other singers trying out for the role of Joseph De Rocher, the convicted murderer and rapist in Terrence McNally and Jake Heggie's opera Dead Man Walking. It's a part Mayes knows well; he grew up with guys like De Rocher, in a town called Cut and Shoot, Texas.

In advance of Central City Opera's production of Dead Man Walking, Westword spoke with Mayes about his role and the social justice work he does through opera.

See also: Sister Helen Prejean fights the death penalty with opera

Westword: Talk about Dead Man Walking and your role?

Michael Mayes: It's based on the book by Sister Helen Prejean. She became the spiritual advisor for two different men and was with them all the way up till the death chamber when they were going to be executed. Patrick Sonnier was the first that she walked down. The opera is a little bit different than the book because it takes both characters, Patrick Sonnier and Robert Lee Willie, and creates an amalgam of these two guys in Joseph de Rocher.

Talk about that role and what it's been like to play him? It's a role that I've known well for ten years. When I first encountered Dead Man Walking, the opera, I was a young artist. It was Dead Man Walking's first big tour round the country. I was playing one of the prison guards. Up until then I had never done anything in opera quite like Dead Man Walking. As you know, it's not like traditional opera. It's not La Boheme. It's not Tosca.

I'd never seen a piece of theater that effected people the way that Dead Man did, much less opera. In that moment, I knew that I was going to play Joseph one day. I didn't know when it was going to be, but I knew that I wanted to.

I grew up in Texas, and this takes place in Louisiana. I knew that I could tell this story in a way that other people couldn't, because I know these guys. I grew up with these guys.

After doing it in Cincinnati, it haunted me for years. I so wanted to do it. Of course, then I was nowhere near ready to do it. I was too young. I finally had my chance in Oklahoma when Tulsa Opera produced the show. The general director and I were sitting around in a bar one night, and he was talking about the next piece he wanted to be doing. And he said, "I really want to do Dead Man Walking. It's going to be a risk, because we're in Oklahoma. When other states are stopping the death penalty, Oklahoma was putting theirs on express. He said, "It's a big risk for us, but I think we're going to do it." I said, "You have to give me Joseph. I have to play this role. There is no one who can do this like I can. I know it."

I can tell you with authority that it was the most difficult thing that I've done in my life on stage. The intensity of this guy, the darkness that envelops him, it was unlike anything I've done before. He's such a provocative character that he inspires all of these emotions.

I realized I wasn't in nowhere near the right shape to do a role like Joseph, so I did a serious weight loss and weight training program and lost about fifty-sixty pounds. I started to look like the guy who was in my head. Even walking around Tulsa, going to Starbucks with this crazy facial hair and skinhead haircut, people react to you in a very specific way. I can understand what these individuals that come from that part of the country feel and how they walk through the world as an outcast.

Doing the role, it's really an emotional roller coaster. I go to a really dark place. Every time you do it, it gets a little easier. It's like a muscle. When I first did it in Oklahoma, it took a lot out of me.

When we did Dead Man, we had a great response. The audience went nuts. When you're in this job and you're a singer and you're doing opera shows, you're always hearing the same compliments: "Oh, that was so beautiful and so powerful and so moving." I say, "Thank you very much. I appreciate it."

I had a woman contact me on my fan page. She sent me a message. She said, "Thank you for your wonderful performance. I was so moved." I'm sitting there reading on my computer and nodding my head. Then she wrote a new paragraph and she said, "My daughter was murdered eight years ago and you've changed the way that I think about the man that murdered my daughter." The wind just went out of me. It kind of kicked my legs out."

I always say opera's a powerful art form. That's the great thing about what we do. It's big emotions, big music, a big orchestra; it makes it an incredible medium for expressing and confronting these big issues. That was when I began to have this desire to make my art, as far as opera, be a part of something bigger than just pretty music or getting praise. In that moment, it really codified my desire to make what I do something meaningful and beyond just making pretty art. It's been wonderful for me.

Read on for more from Michael Mayes.

Growing up, what were your thoughts about the death penalty? Has that changed through your involvement in this role?

It's funny. In my life, I grew up really conservative. I grew up a Missionary Baptist. I don't know if you know anything about the proliferation of denominations just within the Baptist faith, but Missionary Baptists make Southern Baptists look like stark raving mad liberals. You know, it's a really conservative religion. I grew up in that world and went along with that mindset. That defined me.

I've always been a very passionate person. I used to be a really faithfully conservative person and the death penalty was something I believed in and something I thought should happen. Of course, over time, as I grew older, life started kicking me around a little bit and teaching me some hard lessons about compassion. I became more and more progressive and more and more sensitive to all the different ways there are of living in this country and this world.

By the time I was involved in Dead Man Walking, I'd already moderated my position on the death penalty. Working through it and meeting Sister Helen and talking to the victims' families, reading all the accounts of even the perpetrators' families and all of the pain they had gone through as a result of this archaic and barbaric thing we have in this country, I realized that we have no business putting people to death.

The way we administer the death penalty across racial and economic lines is skewed heavily toward minorities and poor people. Sister Helen said, once, that she was talking to one of the guys. She's walked seven additional men down to their end, and she said she was sitting with a young man and they were talking about the inequality that's so pervasive on death row. The guy said, it's funny that they call it capital punishment when those with the capital don't get punished.

The show took a position that I'd already been moving toward and really solidified it for me. Not just in respect to the death penalty but to social justice in general. I became much more sensitive to the social implications of the way we administer justice in this country.

Can you talk more about that?

I don't want to get too political, but when you start to look at the data about who suffers the most and who we put to death more often, even with drug convictions, if you are a member of a certain group racially or economically, you are exponentially more likely to receive a harsher sentence as a result of a conviction. For me, that's a real problem in this country. If we're supposed to be born equal, we should receive equal treatment in the eyes of the law through the justice system. It's just not that way right now. It's a slow process to get it done, and in this country, we've made incredible strides to get it done over the past 30 or 40 years.

Talk about the reception in the opera world to political content and what issues may come up for you around that?

You mean are there negative consequences?

Negative or positive.

I think the effect has largely been positive. Some people may say, "Oh, it's the death penalty. It's kind of risky." The great thing about Dead Man Walking, having never read the book, or seen the movie, or seen the play, they're like "I'm against the death penalty. I don't want to deal with this." The great thing about Dead Man Walking, it doesn't take a position on the death penalty. It shows both sides of the issue.

In the opera world, what's great about these things is that these cultural issues we have in this country, they resonate with every person in the audience. You can't go to an opera about the death penalty and not have an opinion. Nobody's really ambivalent about the death penalty. These people in this show are just like us. They're regular people. They're not Gods. They're not kings. They're regular people.

The music that Jake uses is very successful. It's not by any means banal. It is almost a uniquely American issue. He takes all these different styles of music--jazz, blues, zydeco and country and treats them very skillfully in a classical way so that not only are people's emotional heartstrings being strung, but there are musical things, things that are being activated in them. The response that you get from the audience when you do something like Dead Man Walking is entirely different than the kind of response that you get when you do La Boheme. I'm not saying that Jake's work and the work of modern composers is better than La Boheme. But, in America, today, the story of Dead Man Walking causes such a visceral reaction in people that by the end of the show, I don't care what city you're in, if you're in conservative cities like Cincinnati or Tulsa or if you're in some of the most liberal cities, like Eugene, Oregon or Madison, Wisconsin, at the end of the show, people leap to their feet, and they have tears streaming down their faces because this show leaves something very personal with every person in the audience.

As far as contributions to the opera world, that can only be good for us. I'm not saying that in an opportunistic way. I'm saying, in that moment, opera is being used in the best way it can possibly be used. This enormous art form attacking enormous social issues, there can be no better way to marry those two things than at a show like Dead Man Walking.

Read on for more from Micahel Mayes.

Talk about the research you've done for the role? What was it like to talk to Sister Helen and some of the families? How did that impact you?

There is no shortage of literature on this subject. I didn't actually get to meet Sister Helen until we got to production. There is something about her. She has this energy. It's feels like meeting the Dali Lama. When you encounter somebody like that, they have this energy about them that's so warm and so healing. These people are so immersed in this issue.

To research for the character, I do a lot of reading. Of course, you have to read the book. I watched the movie. I watched a lot of prison documentaries. I read a lot of personal accounts. I really wanted to get into reading what actually happens in the death chamber. I think that's one of the things that's missed in this country. We're so keen to kill people with the death penalty, but we don't really know what happens. Listening to these prison guards, wardens and journalists talk about what happens in that death chamber, I'm speechless. I can't really articulate what emotions that activates.

I grew up in a trailer in East Texas. I was surrounded by Josephs on every side, these angry, white, disempowered, disenfranchised, poor people. That's what Joseph is, you know. His childhood was an absolute wreck. He came from a broken home. His stepfather used to beat on him and all of that.

The town I'm from is called Cut and Shoot, Texas. It sounds like a joke, but no, really, that's where I'm from. It's a tiny, tiny town, and it's got more deaths per capita than any other county in the country.

I knew Joseph before I ever saw it happen on stage. For me, that was really fortuitous, being able to play this guy and really be able to tell these men's stories. As an opera singer, you don't actually get to tell stories, often, that are so personal.

In my high school, the Klan was very active, if you can even imagine. I know these people. Getting the opportunity to play them and show the world what this guy is like and where he comes from, not only to show the darkness and the evil and the foul deeds that he's done, but also to show the humanity and understand.

I personally believe that any person on this planet is capable of being anything. But for a few decisions here or there, I could have ended up like that guy. Fortunately, I had a strong home. Fortunately, I had good, strong parents. But he didn't. Guys like him don't. It was just important for me to be able to tell his story and show his humanity and not just have him be a boogey man for somebody to be afraid of.

Have your family or people from your hometown come out to see Dead Man Walking, and if so, how have they responded?

To Deadman Walking? I haven't had a lot of folks come up and see it. My parents saw it in Tulsa. It was very interesting to see--especially my mother. Every Southern Texan boy has a really special relationship with his mother. They come to everything they possibly can.

That's one thing, being a redneck from Texas, my Dad worked for oil companies. Me being an opera singer wasn't a natural transition for anybody in my family. It was tough for everybody for me to do this.

My mother's seen me in all kinds of characters. One of the things she said to me was: "In everything that you did up until now, I can always see you up there. I always see my son. But seeing you in this role, I didn't see you up there. You weren't there."

It was a little disconcerting. My Mom is always very affectionate. She always hugs me and loves me and tells me how great I was. But after Dead Man Walking, I could see that even her seeing my face after seeing that show was disturbing for her. It's not just a story that happens out of context. The first scene is a very brutal, graphic rape and murder. It pulls no punches. It's an uncensored look at that crime. And it's in opera. It's on the stage.

Especially at Central City, it's going to be on a small stage. It's going to be there in Technicolor right there in front of your face. That's not to suggest it's prurient sensationalism. It's not. Dead Man Walking opens tonight at the Central City Opera House, 124 Eureka Street in Central City, and plays through July 25. Tickets range from $20 to $90.

Follow me on Twitter: @kyle_a_harris.

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Kyle Harris has been Westword’s Culture Editor since 2016, writing about the arts, music and film.
Contact: Kyle Harris