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It's a matter of life and death (on stage) for the Opera Idaho co-stars of 'Dead Man Walking'

A collage of scenes from "Dead Man Walking."
Opera Idaho, Elise Quagliata, Tim Mix
Elise Quagliata (upper left) and Tim Mix (lower left) co-star in "Dead Man Walking."

Elise Quagliata has had the rare experience of truly getting to know the character she portrays in "Dead Man Walking" – Sister Helen Prejean. The nun famous for her activism for the abolition of the death penalty was portrayed, in an Oscar-winning performance, by Susan Sarandon in the film adaptation of Prejean’s memoir. And now, audiences are experiencing Prejean’s story anew with "Dead Man Walking," the opera.

When Quagliata first portrayed Prejean a bit more than ten years ago, he struck up a relationship with the nun. And once, while performing in Chicago, Prejean and Quagliata shared a townhouse for ten days, along with Quagliata’s newborn baby.

“Bless her heart, Sister Helen was so generous of spirit with a crying nursing baby,” said Quagliata. “But to actually live with her and speak with her at a real personal level was a real gift.”

Quagliata and Dead Man Walking co-star Tim Mix visited with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about the life-affirming experience of their production, and preview Opera Idaho’s own production of Dead Man Walking at The Egyptian Theater on Friday, April 22 and Sunday, April 24.

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It is Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. There are seven men on Idaho’s death row this morning. And while some audiences may consider the fate of those inmates while watching Dead Man Walking, it's a fair bet that audiences will also have some self-examination. Dead Man Walking is the title of the memoir of Sister Helen Prejean. It's the title of an Oscar winning film, and it's also an opera. Its libretto is by one of the great playwrights of our time, Terrence McNally. And we're very excited to tell you that Opera Idaho presents Dead Man Walking at the Egyptian Theater in Boise this Friday evening and again Sunday afternoon. Elise Quagliata has performed across the globe as has Tim Mix and together they are costars of Dead Man Walking for Opera, Idaho. Let's say good morning to them both.

ELISE QUAGLIATA: Good morning.

TIM MIX: Good morning.

PRENTICE: Elise, it is my understanding you have sung the role of Sister Helen in at least six productions, so I've got to ask about that kinship, if you will. Beyond your professional connection, can you talk about what I'm assuming is a personal connection that you may have to Sister Helen?

QUAGLIATA: Yeah, I've been very lucky. When I started singing it. The first performance was over ten years ago. I was introduced to Helen over the phone and we started a relationship over the phone and a friendship and conversations over the weeks that I was preparing the role. And then she came to the performance. This was in St Louis. From that point forward, we had stayed in touch and then she came to every show that I sang, and then I had a baby in the middle of all this, and she and I were in DePaul in Chicago singing at DePaul because she had donated her archive to DePaul University. And I was lucky enough to do the performance there. And I had a newborn baby. And so Helen and I lived together in a townhouse for ten days in Chicago with a three month old baby. And she, bless her heart, Sister Helen was so generous of spirit with a crying nursing baby. And to go through this process and get to know this person's physicality and, you know, having phone conversations and getting to know her through the years has been great. But to actually live with her and speak with her in a real personal level was a real gift. And she's since come to other performances that I've done. So to really see who she is as a person physically allows me to physically characterize her as well as understand where she was with a better understanding of what her mission was at that age in her thirties versus now in her eighties. So she's a really interesting, funny, funny person and just an angel among humans. So I feel very lucky to have known her through these years. She always says it's like performing Madame Butterfly for Madame Butterfly. When she sits in the audience, she says, Don't get nervous. I'm here, but I know you're doing a good job.

PRENTICE: Tim Mix, I'm always intrigued by this relationship between your character, Joseph, and sister Helen.

MIX: She's his one lifeline. He's totally set apart from society. He has no one to talk to, no one to confide in. And then Sister Helen shows up, and suddenly he's got this person that he can let his guard down to, he can try to relate to on a human level. And that's something that he doesn't get anywhere else in his life at this point. So she's she is the one beacon that he has in his life.

PRENTICE: Elise, this is a pretty tough story to unwind from when the curtain goes down.

QUAGLIATA: It certainly is. I mean, last night was the first full run through that. We did. And it's been five years since my last performance. And we've had a COVID pandemic in the meantime. And there's been a lot of personal changes, I think, for all of us in in that time. Yeah. Last night I came home and I made it. I had a cup of tea and I watched the Great Pottery Throw Down. I mean, I just have to cleanse my brain from the deep emotional journey that we've all been on together.

PRENTICE: Okay, Tim, in one of your great arias…you're doing push ups, right?

MIX: I am, yes.

PRENTICE: Talk to me about that herculean effort.

MIX: I mean, it's something you have to train for. Like anything else. It's 41 or 42 pushups, depending on how you do the scene. But the hardest part of the first 27, because you have to stay in that pushup position while you're carrying on a conversation with the with the guard and counting out pushups at the same time. And then, of course, then you have to sing the rest of the aria while you're totally out of breath and your heart's pounding. And yeah, it's an effort, to say the least.

PRENTICE: Tim, I've read that you have three notes for voice students, the three pillars of proper technique. Number one:  let's see, Raise your soft palate. Number two: Place the tip of the tongue, gently behind the bottom teeth. And number three is….

MIX: Something along the lines of try to terrify any small children in the area that that was actually in reference to another production I was doing. I was singing Alberich in Jonathan Dove's Rheingold and Crystal Manich was directing that production. And she said to me that I was absolutely terrifying and I had no idea what she was talking about until I saw the production photos. So I posted one of them on Facebook and I just wrote that tag kind of as a joke because it was. I had no idea that I looked like that while I was doing the production. Yes, it was. It was terrifying, to say the least.

PRENTICE: Elise, we are so happy that you have made it to Boise. That said, if anyone follows you on Instagram, let's see. 20 hours of traveling…

QUAGLIATA: I think it was 26 total.

PRENTICE: So, I will not mention the airline. Oh, God, said our listeners will quickly conclude which airline it is when they hand out those cute little napkins to a little piece of paper that says, “What are you going to do while you're there?” And then they have just seven numbers and you're supposed to fill it in talking about buying souvenirs, etc.. And let's see, you wrote number one, sleep to sleep three eat food not from a bag. Five Contemplate my life choices. Six Complain. Seven Never fly. Fill in the blank again. And then let's see. You've got #TravelWoes and #IPutYouOnMyList. My goodness.

QUAGLIATA: Listen, that was a journey. That was a far greater journey than even Helen's journey. And dead man walking. That was not a journey I wish to repeat. I mean, Boise has been very lovely. I wish the weather was a little bit better, but it's a great city. It's great people. I'm glad I'm here. But yes, that was quite a journey from Miami to Boise. That was not what I was expecting. I hope the return is not as adventurous.

PRENTICE: Okay. So walk me through this: from Miami to where to where?

QUAGLIATA: From Miami to Denver. And then in Denver, I had to sleep on the airport floor. I didn't really sleep. I covered myself with my coat and laid on the floor, essentially. And then I had a 5 a.m. flight to Salt Lake City, which was then canceled. So then I had to wait longer in in Denver and then take a flight to Salt Lake. And then I had exactly 40 minutes to run and get my luggage to put it on a new plane on another a different airline, and then run back, catch that new flight from Salt Lake to Boise. And then Marc Junker graciously picked me up and I had 40 minutes before we had our sing through. So I had to a little pat down in the rehearsal bathroom. I more food from a bag and then I sang a 3 hours thing through, but we got through it. And then I had a lovely meal that night and I slept like a baby. It was quite a journey.

PRENTICE: All that said, the journey that at least in Tim will take us on on the stage of the Egyptian theater. For those who have not had the privilege of seeing dead man walking, it is quite simply a life affirming experience. For that, we are so much looking forward to Friday evening and Sunday afternoon and they are at least quickly to mix the costars of Dead Man Walking, presented by Opera, Idaho. Great. Good luck and thank you so very much for giving us some time this morning.

QUAGLIATA: Thank you, George. Thank you. It's a pleasure.

MIX: Happy to do it. Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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