By Payton Clark, Arts Editor
The Porcelain Doll, composed by professor of music Dr. James Vernon, written by assistant professor of English Dr. Brent Newsom and directed by assistant professor of voice Rebecca Ballinger, premieres March 3–5.
The opera tells the story of Laura Bridgman, who was the first blind-deaf person to learn language. The opera stars stars sophomore McKenzie Reece as Bridgman and Cassidy Olsen as Pneuma, Bridgman’s voice.
“I hope to inspire others, especially young women, to aspire to do impossible things just like Laura did,” Vernon said. “Just because it is difficult, does not make it impossible, and time and time again Laura picked herself up and forged on, leaving a legacy on which others could build.”
As the premiere looms, Vernon is nervous for the opera.
“I am anxious as the show gets nearer,” Vernon said. “Anxious for my students who are performing this, anxious for my colleagues who are pouring tons of energy into this production and anxious for myself, that it portrays this incredibly rich story in an effective way.”
However, he is very proud of all those involved in making this story come to life.
“I am also awed by the talent we have at OBU and by their dedication to their craft,” Vernon said.
Newsom is excited for the premiere and thankful for the opportunity to help write such a piece.
“My main contribution has been finished for quite a while, so now I get to sit back and enjoy it while the cast, crew and musicians are working really hard,” Newsom said. “I also feel a huge sense of gratitude for getting to be involved in such a large artistic endeavor.”
The idea for the opera came to Vernon in 2013, and both Vernon and Newsom have been writing and composing since 2015. They finished this past summer.
“It has been a long process, starting with research into the life of Laura Bridgman,” Newsom said. “I finished the libretto in late May of 2016, and Dr. Vernon completed the music in July. Since then, I’ve been able to relax and watch Professor Ballinger take on the huge responsibility of directing the opera–which, of course, has required the collaboration of many other hugely talented people.”
Like Vernon, Newsom hopes that the audience will understand the complexity and individuality of Laura Bridgman.
“I hope they gain, as I did in writing the libretto, a deeper appreciation of the individual humanity of persons with disabilities,” Newsom said. “Laura’s story is remarkable, but if she only becomes a symbol, then I think we have robbed her of something essential.”
Vernon is very appreciative of the efforts given by the students in this opera.
“I hope the students performing in this work know that I am incredibly grateful for their work, energy, talent, and time,” Vernon said. “They are pouring their hearts into this production.”
Laura Bridgman’s story of achievement is one Vernon hopes will also inspire the opera’s performers, and he hopes they use it to take on new creative accomplishments themselves.
“I want for them the same things I want for the audience – that Laura’s story might become theirs in some way, to persevere, to forge on, to dream impossible things and then achieve them,” Vernon said. “Especially for these students, I want them to know that Dr. Newsom and myself might be creative models for them for future endeavors, and that we hope they take on new challenges on a regular basis, like they have done with this new opera.”
According to Newsom, students might be familiar with the opera’s setting but they will be surprised by its power and message, especially if they haven’t seen an opera.
“Set in 19th-century Boston, the opera explores a time in American history that will be familiar to anyone who has taken Civ. at OBU,” Newsom said. “Aside from that, I suspect many students have never seen an opera and will be pleasantly surprised at what a pleasure opera can be. It brings together the visual, musical and theatrical arts in a really powerful way.”
The huge undertaking of an opera hasn’t fazed Vernon, considering he has many more plans to write in the near future.
“I am working on a commissioned choral work right now. I want to write a song cycle for tenor voice and piano. There are several things I wish to write for the Bisonette Glee Club, and I’m considering doing research to think about a future collaboration on a musical,” Vernon said. “Perhaps the theater bug has hit me for good.”
Following the opera, Newsom expects to return to writing.