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

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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.

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