Dead Man Walking: The View from the Pit


While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, ‘Take and eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.’ When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”  Matthew 26: 26-28, 30

Tonight is opening night for our local opera company, Opera Delaware. I’ve had the pleasure of playing oboe and English horn in their production of “Dead Man Walking.” (Learn more here.) The story is a true one—based on the famous book, turned Oscar-winning movie, by nun, Sister Helen Prejean, C.S.J. The opera tells the story of Sister Helen becoming the pen pal and then spiritual guide for a murder (Joseph de Rocher) who waits on death row. The libretto is by Terrance McNally and the exquisite score is by American composer Jake Heggie.

All these hours in the pit have had me remembering one of my favorite things about opera: Leitmotif. This German term describes the musical snippet (a melody, rhythm, or harmonic progression) used to represent a person, place, thing or situation in music. Now you might be tempted to think that John Williams invented this concept when he composed the soundtrack to Star Wars (cue Princess Lea theme), but it turns out it’s been around, as far as musicologists can tell, as long as people have been using music to tell stories. 

Great composers take the leitmotif phenomenon to a new level—allowing the themes of particular characters to morph and change just as the people they represent were doing during the events of the story. In “Dead Man Walking,” Heggie is masterful with his use of leitmotif, and I’ve enjoyed imagining the action of the opera from down below in the pit, as each character comes alive through music.

When you break the word down, the literal meaning of leitmotif is something close to “guiding” or “leading motive.” Lately the concept of leitmotif is resonating deeply with me on a spiritual level.  

Being a character’s musical representative is not something I take it lightly. As the English horn player, I play the leitmotif of the mother of the murder, Mrs. De Rocher. Her beautiful and sad melody, as she pleads to the judge to spare her son’s life in her first scene, has been entrusted to my care. What a privilege to get to weep with her in the lilting and searching music, as she sings: “I’d gladly give my own life to undo what happened.” I get to be a key part of the scene, to help her express her longing and pain, to guide the listener into her breaking heart. 

And isn’t it amazing that the themes say just as much about the composer who wrote them as the characters they represent? It is clear that Jake Heggie feels compassion and love for the defendant’s mother because of the way he treats her leitmotifs.  

I got to thinking the other night during rehearsal, how life can sometimes feel like an opera. I don’t know about you, but I often find myself reaching to music to help me process my emotions, wishing there was a soundtrack swelling at moments of intense joy and leitmotifs for the characters of my life. It got me wondering what my leitmotif would sound like, if it would be as unique as my finger print, if it would reflect the depth of my experience being alive. What would my theme, in this opera of my life, be guiding people towards? 

In the passage at the beginning of this post, from the Gospel of Matthew, we find Jesus singing, too. He leads the disciples in a hymn following the Passover meal, as would have been the custom. I found it interesting that more than one Gospel writer depicts this little detail. To think of Jesus leading them in a song of praise, he himself a dead man walking, that fact breaks my heart open.

In his final moments before arrest and execution, here was Jesus, God’s leitmotif, guiding us in a praise song at his darkest hour. 

If Jesus found God worthy to be praised in that moment, then his song tells us that God’s character is one that will never forsake us. It shows us that, regardless of all the brokenness and heartbreak in the world, God is good and worthy of our songs. Jesus reminds us that, even in moments of intense pain, we can rest in the knowledge that his kingdom of justice and love will have no end, regardless of the pits we find ourselves in. 

As I look up tonight during the curtain call (because, let’s me honest, I cannot look away from my music even for a second), I am so thankful for Sister Helen for sharing her beautiful and harrowing story with the world. I am thankful for the power of forgiveness, which she reminds us we can find only in God. As we in the orchestra have the privilege of singing the characters’ sighs that are too deep for words, I remember that if we are willing to listen for it, our Creator’s leitmotif tells us of God’s love as it calls to us. Jesus’ song leads us into the very heart of God. It is there we find hope in the face of cynicism, forgiveness in the face of bitter resentment, and love in the face of hatred and despair.

Sometimes this opera of life, with its powerful counterpoint of pain and beauty, leaves us with nothing to do but sing.