Inside the star-studded opening of the Metropolitan Opera’s moving new production of Dead Man Walking

Ann HatawayJason Crowley/

“Some of the senior guards thought that Walking Dead may be too shocking to open the Met’s season, Peter Gelb, general director of the Metropolitan Opera’s Maria Manetti Shrem, told guests at a gala fundraising dinner last night. “Obviously they were not there in 1907, when Salome premiere,” he continued, referring to Richard Strauss’s highly controversial opera, in which soprano Olive Fremstad’s caress of the severed head of John the Baptist caused such an uproar on opening night that the production was halted for several years. It was good, then, that Gelb and the opera he leads decided to rush forward anyway – as boldly, alarmingly and defiantly (the program comes with a disclaimer) as Walking Dead is.

It was a brilliant opening night and, behind the scenes, a stellar start to the 2023-24 season. Jake Heggie’s gripping new production, with emotional depth and powerful storytelling, Walking DeadThe film, directed by Ivo van Hove, left audiences spellbound. The intermission chatter was not idle chatter, but rather a lively discussion of the need to make sense of the unsettling story unfolding, complemented by Van Hove’s signature theatrical cinematography. (The filming begins with very real video of the rape of one teenager and the shooting of another.) Bass-baritone Ryan McKinney portrays real-life convicted murderer Joseph Des Roches, who is on death row in New York. Orleans prison. (This is the same story that Tim Robbins, who was in attendance last night, adapted for his 1995 film of the same name starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn.) Des Rochers are consoled by Roman Catholic nun Sister Helen Prejean (played by mezzo-soprano) . Joyce DiDonato, who encourages a prisoner to take responsibility for his sins in his final days. Prejean, who also attended last night’s performance, remains an abolitionist, and the production forces audiences into an internal tug-of-war over their own stance on absolute forgiveness and the ethics of the death penalty.

Notable participants included Anne Hathaway and Adam Shulman, Tim Robbins, Whoopi Goldberg, Jon Hamm, Peter Sarsgaard, Ben Stiller, Angela Bassett and Courtney B. Vance, Adrien Brody and Georgina Chapman, and many others.

At the post-show dinner, held next door to the Metropolitan Opera in the newly renovated David Geffen Hall, Gelb ended the evening with impassioned remarks. Next he touched on the meaning Walking Dead, calling it one of many worthy attempts to “revitalize the repertoire.” Gelb also noted the presence of Ukraine’s UN Ambassador Sergei Kislitsa and Ukrainian Freedom Orchestra conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson, emphasizing the Met’s support for social justice and freedom in Ukraine.

He then paid tribute to Sister Helen Prejean, who he said led the Met “to the intersection of art and social justice.” With $3.2 million raised for the opera company during the evening, everyone was confident that Lincoln Center would continue to feature more impressive stories.

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