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JMU Opera Theater tackles tough topics in Dead Man Walking

james madison university jmuJMU Opera Theater students are tackling tough topics in the edgy, contemporary opera, Dead Man Walking, which takes place in the Mainstage Theatre of the Forbes Center for the Performing Arts at James Madison University on Friday and Saturday, November 9 and 10 at 8 p.m. and Sunday, November 11 at 2 p.m.

Hailed as one of the most important operas of the 21stcentury, Dead Man Walking recounts the true story of Sister Helen Prejean and her courageous struggle to provide spiritual guidance to condemned Louisiana murderer Joseph De Rocher in the months leading up to his execution.

“It’s a story about redemption and forgiveness,” says faculty director Don Rierson. “But it’s also a story that confronts capital punishment and the questions and problems people have with it.”

Based on Sister Helen’s memoir and the Oscar-winning movie of the same name, this opera has impacted audiences worldwide since its landmark premiere in 2000. It features a powerful libretto by four-time Tony Award-winning playwright Terrence McNally and lush music by Jake Heggie, regarded as one of the great living opera composers. With music set to everyday language that has jazz and music theatre elements in it, Dead Man Walking “has all of those ingredients that a classical opera would have like beautiful duets and arias, but it is more rhythmic, driving and modern,” shares Rierson.

Doctoral student Susan Gouthro and senior Darby Clinard are double-cast as Sister Helen. Gouthro was recently celebrated as the opera-diva Carlotta in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera at the Metronom Theater in Oberhausen, Germany, singing eight shows per week for one year. Clinard is a vocal performance major who was able to speak with “the real” Sister Helen about the role thanks to a family connection. JMU alum Eric Grendahl (‘16) and junior Joel Clemens are double-cast as Joseph De Rocher, which according to Rierson, provided a particular acting challenge due a “complete transformation of having to be purposely deceitful.”

The JMU Opera Theater provides main stage and workshop opportunities for performance majors enrolled in B.M., M.M. and D.M.A. programs at the university. The program has attracted outstanding graduates and undergraduates from prominent national and international arts high schools, universities and conservatories.

In recent years, JMU Opera Theater has presented critically acclaimed productions of La Bohème, The Barber of Seville and The Magic Flute. In Spring 2009, they presented Jeremy Beck and Patricia Marx’s Review at the National Arts Club in Manhattan under the tutelage of the Center for Contemporary Opera. The singers perform regularly in international venues in Germany, Italy, Wales and England, and have been quite successful in university Concerto-Aria, National Association of Teachers of Singing and other national competitions. Rierson received the prestigious Alumni Legacy Award from the JMU Emeriti Association in 2012. JMU annually hosts the first round of the Classical Singer competition and maintains an active and enthusiastic Opera Guild.

Tickets are $22-$23. For tickets, visit or call the Forbes Center Box Office at 540-568-7000.