- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

SHAWNEE, Okla. (AP) - If one was to say the first word that comes to mind after hearing the word “opera,” he or she might likely rattle off the first composer they remember from music class - Mozart, Tchaikvosky or Vivaldi, perhaps.

For those thinking the art form once mastered by such composers is nothing more than a distant memory in history books - fear not - because such a composer is quite alive and doing very well, and living the dream in Shawnee.

About three years ago, Oklahoma Baptist University Professor of Music Dr. James Vernon began the journey to composing “A Porcelain Doll,” the story of the life of Laura Bridgman (1829-89), the first deaf-blind student to successfully learn to communicate with others, The Shawnee News-Star (https://bit.ly/2lJ2sxM ) reported.

Vernon said he wanted a strong female role model for the work. He also wanted to write a truly American opera in English.

“Bridgman was at one time very famous, but is now mostly forgotten,” Vernon said. “After reading about her, I thought the idea of bringing Bridgman’s thoughts (and writings) to life would be a great operatic format.” He said one actress performs on stage as Laura Bridgman and another character, Pneuma, portrays her voice.

Vernon was granted a half-load sabbatical during the 2015-16 academic year, using that time to work diligently on “A Porcelain Doll.” He said he locked himself away in a cabin in Arkansas for a week during October 2015, and continued the composition process through July 2016.

“Tuesdays and Thursdays it was my full-time job,” Vernon said. “I would write for eight to 10 hours per day. The writing was the easy part, but the formatting was tedious. The composing is the fun part.”

Vernon chose friend and OBU colleague Dr. Brent Newsom, assistant professor of English, to help him on the project.

“We go to church together and I’m a big fan of his poetry,” Vernon said. “It turns out, he (Newsom) had always wanted to write a libretto for an opera.”

Newsom said writing the libretto took longer than he expected, partly because of the research required and partly because it took some time to figure out how it should be structured.

As a result of the duo’s efforts, the finished work is now ready for its debut in a world premiere March 3-5 at OBU.

The work is a full-scale stage opera detailing Bridgman’s life, the first deaf-blind person to gain a significant education in the English language through the efforts of the Perkins School of the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts. The opera deals with significant experiences in her life, including the realization of language, life as a significant celebrity in the mid-19th century, visits from traveling dignitaries like Charles Dickens, the establishment of religion as a reality in her life, and her later years living in the Perkins School where she assisted with younger students and inspired others, including Anne Sullivan, the eventual teacher of the young Helen Keller, whom Bridgman also met near the end of her life when Keller was eight years old.

“Opera, an art form that is visual, musical and vocal, might seem a strange choice of medium to tell the story of a woman who couldn’t see, hear or speak,” Newsom said. “But Laura loved sensing the vibrations that musical instruments emit, so I think she’d be pleased with the use of music. Also, the opera presented a chance to attempt giving her a voice in a way her body did not.”

In the end, Vernon said he believes Bridgman’s story in words and in music has been composed to give light on this remarkable woman who gives the world hope - that those with severe disabilities can achieve great things and be fully engaged partners with all society.

The musical’s Director Rebecca Ballinger, OBU assistant professor of voice, said she is excited to help bring this powerful story to the audience.

Also, David Kenworthy, assistant professor of theatre and design technician, is the technical director and set designer.

“The stage is set up so we can move more through Laura’s mind,” Ballinger said.

The music was also composed with Laura’s deaf-blindness in mind, helping the audience enter her world through the instruments and tones selected.

Vernon created a minimalist score, with the marimba as the most important piece in the orchestra, which also features nine strings, four woodwinds, and percussion.

Ballinger said, “It’s a bit like a movie score. You might not go away humming all of the melodies, but the music is there to tell you emotionally what is going on in the show. It’s there to guide you through the material, the denseness of her life.”

The cast of the opera includes more than 20 roles, made up of OBU students and members of the community.

Due to technology, the process of sharing an opera today has some distinctive differences than when it began in Italy around 1600 A.D.

“Most operas do not go on the road, so to speak,” Vernon said. “For this opera, I will be contacting other opera companies and schools who might be interested. They would then perform it at their location.”

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Information from: The Shawnee News-Star, https://www.news-star.com

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