Tickets are now on sale for the world premiere of “A Porcelain Doll” March 3-5 at Oklahoma Baptist University. The opera was composed by Dr. James Vernon, professor of music, with libretto by Dr. Brent Newsom, assistant professor of English. The production will be staged in the Craig Dorland Theater on OBU’s campus in Shawnee. Performances are March 3 and 4 at 7:30 p.m. and March 5 at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $13 for adults and $5 for students and may be purchased at www.okbu.edu/opera.
“A Porcelain Doll” is the moving story of the life of Laura Bridgman (1829-89), the first deaf-blind student to successfully learn to communicate with others. Born in Hanover, New Hampshire, she lost her sight, hearing and most of her sense of taste at the age of two due to scarlet fever. The opera deals with significant experiences in her life, including her life at the Perkins School of the Blind in Boston, the realization of language, life as a significant celebrity in the mid-19th century, visits from travelling dignitaries such as Charles Dickens, and the establishment of religion as a reality in her life. It also deals with 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.
Audience members are encouraged to attend a preshow lecture before each performance, featuring background information and details about Bridgman’s life, her learning process, and insights into the production. These sessions begin at 6:45 p.m. on March 3 and 4, and at 1:45 p.m. March 5. The pre-show lectures will take place in a large classroom across the hall from the theater entrance in Shawnee Hall. A 10-minute talk-back session will follow each performance.
Vernon anticipates a powerful experience for audiences who are exposed to Laura’s moving story through the performance.
“In the end, I believe the story of Laura Bridgman, 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,” Vernon said.
“It may be odd to some that music might be chosen as a vehicle to portray the thoughts and story of a woman who could neither speak nor hear. Yet I believe making music is one of the first things Laura Bridgman wanted to do when she was released from her earthly home and attained her heavenly one.”
“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. 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,” Newsom said.
To that end, Vernon composed the music to guide the audience through Laura’s emotions and created a special character to illuminate her thoughts and feelings. “Pneuma” represents the soul, spirit and consciousness of Laura. Positioned on a balcony overlooking the stage, Pneuma gestures in synchronization with Bridgman and sings Laura’s thoughts, but does not move from her balcony.
Rebecca Ballinger, assistant professor of voice, is directing the production. David Kenworthy, assistant professor of theatre and design technician, is the technical director and set designer.
Ballinger encourages everyone to experience this powerful, moving performance.
“It's a great first step in the opera. It's in English. It deals with love and self-identity, and we are able to see it in a rather unique and spectacular individual,” Ballinger said.
The cast includes McKenzie Reece as Laura Bridgman and Cassidy Olsen as Pneuma, Laura’s voice. Dr. Stephen Sims, assistant professor of music, will play Samuel Gridley Howe.
The role of Mary Swift will be played by Paige Shelton, while Jude Balthazar will portray Charles Dickens. Jennifer Watson will play Harmony Bridgman, while Julie Welch will portray Julia Ward Howe. The opera includes more than 20 roles in all, including OBU students, faculty and members of the community.
To purchase tickets, visit www.okbu.edu/opera. For more information about the production and the history behind the story, visit porcelaindollopera.wordpress.com.