Four years ago, Lyric Opera of Chicago staged its first commissioned grand opera in more than a decade: Bel Canto, adapted from Ann Patchett’s 2001 novel about a terrorist hostage crisis. The production had no trouble demonstrating its relevance or engaging a modern audience; the Islamic State attacks in Paris had come less than a month before the opening. Lyric held sessions after each performance so that audience members could discuss the piece. Sometimes more than 200 people would stay.

Encouraged by the chord struck by Bel Canto, Lyric revealed this past January that each of its seasons would now include at least one contemporary opera sung in English, produced on the main stage, and aimed at grappling with present-day issues. This month, Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking becomes the first in that series. “I believe opera is for everyone,” says Anthony Freud, Lyric’s general director. “I understand that heritage repertoire may not have obvious appeal to everyone, and I want us to find new or recent work that will … thrill the existing opera lover but will intrigue and excite people who have never been in the building.”

The Lyric knows the barriers it faces in luring new fans. “A lot of people have a negative association with the word ‘opera,’ ” says Cayenne Harris, the head of Lyric’s special-projects arm, Lyric Unlimited. Most canonical operas are more than three hours long and sung in foreign languages, requiring continual upward eye flicking to read the supertitles. An English libretto is so rare at the Lyric, in fact, that Bel Canto was the last on the main stage to have one — and even that production contained passages in seven other languages.

As the opening selection for Lyric’s contemporary-opera push, Dead Man Walking is a careful choice. It already has name recognition thanks to its source material: Sister Helen Prejean’s identically titled memoir and the Oscar-winning 1995 movie starring Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn. Even though a hot-button topic, the death penalty, is the engine of the show, Dead Man Walking doesn’t take a policy position, presenting the comparative weights of ending a human life and the cathartic effect on victims’ families as an open question.

The Lyric’s 2015 production of 'Bel Canto' inspired the company’s new initiative.
The Lyric’s 2015 production of Bel Canto inspired the company’s new initiative. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Dead Man Walking kick-started the career of Heggie, now the most-performed living composer of opera in the U.S., according to stats kept by the website Operabase. The librettist, McNally, was already a Broadway luminary at the time of the 2000 premiere, with four Tony Awards and dozens of plays under his belt. It was the right subject at the right time. “The story was already in the public consciousness,” Heggie says. “Which is not a new thing for opera. It started out with classical myths that everyone knew and legends.”

Dead Man Walking’s bare-bones set — with prominent walls of prison bars, minimal props, and modest costumes — originated with a production commissioned just a year after the opera’s premiere. Lyric’s version boasts an impressive cast, with soprano Patricia Racette, acclaimed as much for her acting as her singing, as Sister Helen and the baritone Ryan McKinny, fresh off playing Amfortas in Parsifal at the Bayreuth Festival in Germany, making his Lyric debut as the condemned murderer Joseph De Rocher. The director, Leonard Foglia, who almost exclusively handles contemporary opera, is a frequent presence on and off Broadway.

Months ahead of its 2020–21 season reveal, Lyric has already announced the next entry in its contemporary initiative: the North American premiere of George Benjamin’s Lessons in Love and Violence, which deals with the abuse of political power. And Lyric’s recently announced music director designate, the youthful 51-year-old Enrique Mazzola, is eager to conduct newer material, Freud says. In other words, opera is alive and well, living in productions like Dead Man Walking.

Details:Dead Man Walking Nov. 2–22. Lyric Opera House. Loop. $39–$299.