Composers Datebook®

Jake Heggie's opera 'Dead Man Walking'

Composer's Datebook - October 7, 2023


As the 20th century drew to its close, some who followed the development of opera were struck by the number of new American operas on American themes.

On today’s date in 2000, one of these new operas debuted in San Francisco. Dead Man Walking, an opera in two acts, was based on a 1993 book by Sister Helen Prejean, a book also made into a successful movie. The libretto for the operatic version of Sister Prejean’s book was crafted by Terrance McNally and set to music by American composer Jake Heggie.

Now, an opera based on eyewitness accounts of American prisoners on death row might seem an unlikely topic for an opera, but Sister Prejean didn’t think so.

“I love the way the opera captures essential human conflicts: love or hate, compassion or vengeance, redemption or condemnation,” she said. “… From the beginning, I told McNally and Heggie that I’d trust them to compose the opera if they wove into its center the quest for redemption. They got it. And I could tell by the stillness in the auditorium and the tumultuous applause at the end that the audience also really gets it.”

Music Played in Today's Program

Jake Heggie (b. 1961) Dead Man Walking - San Francisco Opera; Patrick Summers, cond. Erato 86238

On This Day


  • 1746 - American composer of hymns, anthems, and "fuging tunes," William Billings, in Boston;


  • 1918 - English composer Sir Hubert Parry, age 70, at Knight's Croft, Rustington (Sussex);


  • 1893 - Gilbert & Sullivan: operetta "Utopia Unlimited," at the Savoy Theatre in London;

  • 1905 - Victor Herbert: operetta "Mlle. Modiste," in Trenton, N.J.;

  • 1909 - Rimsky-Korsakov: opera "The Golden Cockerel," posthumously, in Moscow at the Solodovnikov Theater, Emil Cooper conducting (Julian date: Sept. 24);

  • 1951 - Lukas Foss: Piano Concerto No. 2, in Venice, with the composer as soloist;

  • 1955 - Milhaud: Symphony No. 6, by the Boston Symphony with the composer conducting;

  • 1956 - Shostakovich: String Quartet No. 6, in Leningrad, by the Beethoven Quartet;

  • 1961 - Henry Cowell: Symphony No. 15 ("Thesis"), in Murray, Ky., by the Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney conducting;

  • 1963 - José Serebrier: "Poema Elegiaco," by the American Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski conducting;

  • 1976 - Del Tredici: "Final Alice," in Chicago, with soprano Barbara Hendricks and the Chicago Symphony conducted by Sir Georg Solti;

  • 1983 - Arvo Pärt: "If Bach Had Raised Bees" for harpsichord, electric bass guitar, tape and ensemble, in Graz, Austria;

  • 1994 - Daniel Asia: "Gateways" for orchestra, by the Cincinnati Symphony, Herrman Michael conducting;

  • 2000 - Jake Heggie: opera "Dead Man Walking," at the San Francisco Opera, Patrick Summers conducting.

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About Composers Datebook®

Host John Birge presents a daily snapshot of composers past and present, with timely information, intriguing musical events and appropriate, accessible music related to each.

He has been hosting, producing and performing classical music for more than 25 years. Since 1997, he has been hosting on Minnesota Public Radio's Classical Music Service. He played French horn for the Cincinnati Symphony and Pops Orchestra and performed with them on their centennial tour of Europe in 1995. He was trained at the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Eastman School of Music and Interlochen Arts Academy.

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