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Thursday February 27th, 2020 3:40AM

Heggie's `Dead Man Walking' gets Met Opera premiere in 20-21

By The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — After years of pushing, Joyce DiDonato has been granted a big wish: The Metropolitan Opera is mounting Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking" for the mezzo-soprano next season.

Twenty seasons after the work's world premiere, it arrives at the Met on April 8, 2021, in a production directed by Tony Award-winner Ivo van Hove.

"It is the most performed and successful opera of the last 20 or so years," said Met general manager Peter Gelb, who originally hoped Heggie would write a new opera for the Met. "He was so busy doing full-fledged commissions with guaranteed presentations that he was less interested in participating in our commissioning program that only guaranteed a workshop."

The Met announced its 2020-21 season Thursday, which 23 productions, down from 25 this season and the fewest at the Met since 1998-99.

"We're trying to balance between artistic excellence and also economic fiscal responsibility," Gelb said.

DiDonato stars as Sister Helen Prejean in a cast that includes Etienne Dupuis as the convict Joseph De Rocher, Latonia Moore as Sister Rose and Susan Graham as Mrs. Patrick De Rocher — she was Sister Helen at the San Francisco Opera's world premiere in 2000. Music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts, and the April 17 performance will be telecast to movie theaters around the world.

Based on Sister Helen Prejean's 1993 book, which was turned into a film two years later by director Tim Robbins, the opera's portrays a death-row convict struggling to come to terms with his crime and upcoming execution, his confession to Sister Helen and her forgiveness.

"I think more than any opera it deals with perhaps the most important thing, which is true love," said DiDonato, who has sung the role since 2002. "What he's looking for is forgiveness. And what I find is the theme of this opera expands and becomes about looking at every human being's humanity and which life has value? Whose life has more value than another? And how do we as a society begin to prioritize them?"

Heggie was commissioned to adapt "Dead Man" with playwright Terrence McNally, who wrote the libretto.

"A lot of big companies were like, oh, this will never work," Heggie said. "Unknown composer, controversial story. And it really hit a chord. It became something that was relevant and connected to things that people were talking about in popular culture, not obtusely, but directly. And I think it also surprised people that it was very lyric."

Van Hove is Belgian, and his European background made the subject matter intriguing. Most countries in Europe do not have the death penalty.

"We don't know how it's possible that you can kill somebody even if he or she has done the most cruel thing in life," he said.

Nézet-Séguin conducts six productions, including a new Michael Mayer staging of Verdi's "Aida" that opens the season Sept. 21 starring Anna Netrebko. He leads van Hove's "Don Giovanni" that reopens the season on March 1 following a new February break, and revivals of Beethoven's "Fidelio," Gounod's "Romeo et Juliette," and Strauss' "Die Frau ohne Schatten."

This originally was to have been Nézet-Séguin's first season as music director but he started two seasons early after the Met suspended and then fired music director emeritus James Levine following multiple allegations of sexual misconduct from the 1960s to '80s, which he has denied.

"Don Giovanni," among three new-to-the-Met productions, debuted at the Paris Opera last year. Prokofiev's "The Fiery Angel" makes its Met premiere on Nov. 12 in a Barrie Kosky staging first seen at Munich's Bavarian State Opera in 2015. Mozart's "Die Zauberfloete (The Magic Flute)" opens New Year's Eve in a Simon McBurney production that opened in Amsterdam in 2012. The Met had planned a Robert Lepage staging seen at the 2018 Festival d'Opéra de Québec, then changed its mind.

The February break will extend the season into June for the first time since 1970-74.

"Statistically, Februarys are the worst-selling month of the season and the spring and fall are the best-selling periods," Gelb said

There will be 22 Sunday matinees, up from 16, and all will be followed by post-performance cast talkbacks. Gelb said Sundays have sold significantly better than the Monday night performances they replaced, and overall sales are "a couple" of percentage points ahead of 2018-19.

Tickets for non-galas remain at $25-480 for the third straight season.

Speranza Scappucci becomes just the Met's sixth woman conductor when she leads "La Traviata" on Jan. 13; Netrebko makes her role debut as Abigaille in Verdi's "Nabucco" on March 26; and baritone Lucia Lucas becomes what the Met believes is its first transgender singer as Bosun in Britten's "Billy Budd" on May 21.

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