Opera Birmingham announces the creation of a new opera about the life of Helen Keller, premiering in 2024. The opera, titled Touch, focuses on Helen Keller’s adult life and the profound accomplishments that she and her teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy, achieved as humanitarians and activists. The title, Touch, brings to mind not only the means through which Keller communicated, but also the impact she had on others. The world premiere of Touch is set to take place in Birmingham in January 2024, bringing national attention to the state of Alabama.
Opera Birmingham has commissioned outstanding American composer/librettist Carla Lucero and co-librettist Marianna Mott Newirth to create this new opera about the life of Helen Keller, celebrated 20th century deaf and blind author and activist, and Anne Sullivan Macy, her teacher, confidant and friend. Initial information on the project is available at www.operabirmingham.org/touch and will expand as more details are announced.
The opera Touch picks up where the play The Miracle Worker ends, exploring the complicated relationship between Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan Macy, John Macy (Anne’s husband) and Peter Fagan (Helen’s interpreter and star-crossed lover). Touch addresses themes of disability and the capacity of individuals to act independently and make their own free choices. A world-renowned humanitarian, Helen Keller fiercely advocated for women’s suffrage, civil rights and disability rights. Her monumental achievements over 80 years shed light on society’s darkest disabilities. She saw the need for a balanced world, heard the cry of the oppressed and spoke for them.
Keller’s passion was equally present in her personal life. Touch tenderly captures the humanity of her life, characteristics often overlooked in such an iconic figure. She was quick-witted and playful, devoted and fiercely loving, and as interested in reading Jane Austin’s romantic novels as the philosophy of Walt Whitman.
This 90 minute, two-act chamber opera is written in English and will be performed in English, interpreted in American Sign Language (ASL). The text of the opera will be projected above the stage. The production features three principal singing roles (Anne Sullivan Macy, John Macy and Peter Fagan). An actor plays the role of Helen Keller, and there is an ensemble of six singers, representing Helen’s voice and doubling in secondary roles. The score will be orchestrated for seven players: flute, bassoon, percussion, prepared piano and string trio.
Touch represents Opera Birmingham’s commitment to telling diverse stories of our community and providing access to a wide range of artists and patrons. This production will include low-vision and low-hearing artists in all facets of the opera. Opera Birmingham is also ensuring accessibility for audience members, from ASL interpreters at performances and Braille program notes to assisted listening devices and audio description services.
Opera Birmingham’s general director, Keith A. Wolfe-Hughes shared, “One of our focuses is producing work which speaks to our modern day lives, to go beyond the great romantic love stories in classic operas to connect with stories of our world around us. When we heard about Carla’s proposal for composing Touch, it was almost like a lightning bolt hit me. We just had to do this opera. It’s a story with deep Alabama connections, about two remarkable women who worked tirelessly on so many civil rights issues. Additionally, they had a very complex relationship to each other. All of these elements come together for a very powerful story, which is perfect for the operatic stage.”
As part of Opera Birmingham’s Birmingham Speaks series of community conversations inspired by opera, the plans include panel discussions and roundtable conversations around the premiere of Touch, featuring the creators of the opera, guest speakers on the life and work of Helen Keller, and representatives from organizations working in the low-vision/low-hearing community.
“We expect this premier will bring national attention to our state,” said Elanor Parker Walter, Opera Birmingham’s director of marketing and community engagement. ” It also provides the opportunity for economic impact, as Opera Birmingham employs local artists on stage and behind the scenes, and as this world premiere encourages tourism to our state.”
The creation of Touch has been made possible, in part, by a generous contribution from UAB Callahan Eye Hospital & Clinic, Marty Jeiven, Fred Elsas and his wife, and by a grant from the Alabama State Council on the Arts. A workshop of the opera will take place in Fall 2022 at the Seagle Festival in upstate New York.
For more information regarding Opera Birmingham and upcoming performances, visit OperaBirmingham.org or call 205-322-6737, and connect with Opera Birmingham on Facebook, Twitter @OperaBham, and Instagram @OperaBirmingham. Opera Birmingham, Alabama’s largest professional opera company, has entertained audiences for over 65 years
Touch begins when Helen Keller is admitted to Radcliffe College in 1900, after her teacher and mentor, Anne Sullivan, makes her case to a skeptical dean through letters of recommendation from Mark Twain and Alexander Graham Bell. As Helen becomes a celebrated writer, the extraordinary, but codependent relationship between her and Anne is tested when Anne marries the drunken and philandering John Macy. As the marriage unravels, Helen discovers her calling as an anti-war and women’s suffrage activist, and an emotionally drained Anne becomes ill. She hires Peter Fagan, a young interpreter, to take her place as she recovers. A romantic relationship begins between Helen and Peter. The romance is doomed, as the Keller family and Anne plot to end it without Helen’s knowledge, leaving her with the impression that Peter has abandoned her. The opera ends with Helen holding Anne’s hand as Anne dies. Distraught with grief, Helen speaks the first and last words we hear from her lips,
Carla Lucero studied composition at CalArts with composers Rand Steiger, Morton Subotnick and Leonard Rosenman. Her first opera, WUORNOS, about the tragic life of Aileen Wuornos, premiered at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, winning “10 Best of Stage” from The Advocate and Out magazines. Her second opera, Juana, with co-librettist Alicia Gaspar de Alba, premiered with Opera UCLA in 2019, winning “12 Best of Fall 2019” by the LA Times. Juana, a Spanish language opera about 17th century Mexican feminist icon, Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, premiered in New York in August 2021 with dell’Arte Opera Ensemble. Lucero was a recipient of Opera America’s Discovery Grant for the composition of Juana.
Her opera, touch, about Helen Keller is in development with co-librettist, Marianna Mott Newirth. A new ballet, House of Names, by choreographer Marika Brussel, premiered virtually in San Francisco in October 2020 at ODC Theater. Lucero has commissions from Earplay, the Mexico City Philharmonic, Collage Dance Theater, Orquesta Marga-Marga, ComuArte International, and the Women’s Peninsula Choir, among others.
Marianna Mott Newirth is a New York librettist, playwright and creative producer. Her commissioned opera works with composer Mike von der Nahmer include Musical Tales Concerto, New Ulm, MN; Blue Hum, Toronto, ON; Where is the Stillness, Bonn, Germany; and Transportation Transformation, New York City. She was co-librettist for Growing Young, Brooklyn SU-CASA, Brooklyn, NY; and Nia Wa Ja Shu, Munich. She
dramaturged for Princess Maleine by composer Whitney George and librettist Bea Goodwin. Marianna’s straight theatrical works include Bachelor’s Agreement, Correspondence Theory, and Interabled. She is Artistic Administrator for dell’Arte Opera Ensemble and serves on the board of New York Opera Alliance. Independently she is producing the video opera When Falling…Dive and is in the first cohort of the BMP-Producer Academy.
June 2019 – Opera Birmingham and Carla Lucero connect at the Opera America Conference during the New Works Forum. Discussions begin on commissioning of the project.
February 2021 – Virtual libretto workshop, with cast members from the low-vision and low-hearing community, with a public reading and feedback session. Two subsequent virtual libretto readings take place, as the story and script are refined.
October 2021 – Final draft of libretto approved. Carla Lucero begins composing.
Summer 2022 – Piano/vocal score delivered. Workshop hosted at Seagle Festival in upstate New York. Fall 2022 – Piano/vocal reading/workshop hosted in Birmingham, Alabama.
2023 – Final draft of piano/vocal, and orchestra score delivered (finalized by November 2023). January 2024 – World premiere of Touch in Birmingham, Alabama.