by Aubrey Aikens
Opera has historically been associated with aggressively voluptuous women in Viking helmets and breast plates, screaming to the high heavens in languages such as German or Italian about provocative topics and then dying in an overly dramatic, unrealistic fashion.
However, this entire image was well and truly shattered a couple weeks ago, when yours truly and the beloved Cristina took a Friday night for ourselves and went to Jake Heggie’s acclaimed “Dead Man Walking” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. This all began when, offhandedly, Cristina mentioned that she had only experienced Lyric’s majesty from the “nosebleed seats” and I was aghast. It took no time at all for me to secure us a pair of main floor tickets and a full backstage tour of the house with a friend of mine, and with that, our adventure into high art was planned! Although I have worked on this opera in the past, I had little time to sit and enjoy it at any capacity, so this was a great opportunity to share the magic of opera with Cristina.
AT the end of the day that Friday, when the clock struck five, we packed up our things and made our way over to Carnivale for a light dinner before our show. I had never tried oysters before (something that greatly amused Cristina) and we ordered a whole plate of them. Although I probably won’t eat them again, I can admit that it was a fun experience to eat salty snot from a shell.
We eventually arrived at the impressive building on Wacker Drive after a couple drinks and way too many mollusks, finding out seats amongst the throngs of excited concert-goers. As the curtain went up and the lights dimmed, we were presented with an unbelievably impressive structure of crossing iron fences and a running car. The opera hit the ground running as we saw a violent, explicit, gut-wrenching murder scene depicting how the main character ended up on death row in the first place. Needless to say, our jaws were on the floor within the first ten minutes of the piece. I’ve never been to a live performance that forced me to face such a viscerally disturbing, yet emotionally provocative topic so effectively in my entire career thus far.
We then are suddenly transported to an idyllic classroom of singing children and happy nuns-a dichotomous juxtaposition to say the least-and are introduced to Sister Helen, who is fated to be the spiritual advisor to the aforementioned death row inmate. I barely had time to dry my tears from the previous scene before we are given a touching look into the moral implications and internal struggle of the nun, and I started crying again. The story continued to unfold itself in a beautifully tragic way, allowing for deep connections to be made to the characters and an unavoidably human part of the soul to reawaken.
To make a long story short, I spent almost three whole hours crying. Thank goodness that they decided to leave the lights off for the bows because I believe most people in the audience would have been red eyed and tear-stained. It was unbelievable to see such a medium for art be able to connect with me in a way that most operas in the past have failed to do. I’ve long since been a critic of the massive disconnect between American audiences and the three-hundred-plus year-old European cannon of content, so to be able to immerse myself in something both relatable and fresh is remarkable. I cannot praise this work enough. I just know I will see it again the next time I have the chance.