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

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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.

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