A Porcelain Doll: A Collaborative Libretto by Brent Newsom & James Vernon

A Process Note

My collaboration with composer Jim Vernon on what would become A Porcelain Doll began when he approached me in the fall of 2015. With a colleague he had begun researching the life of Laura Bridgman as material for an opera. When that colleague, who was to write the libretto, tragically died of heart failure, Jim hoped to still pursue the project as a tribute to her. Though a near-total novice at all things opera, I was intrigued by the artform’s blending of narrative with lyricism, two forces I try to unite in much of my poetry. I readily agreed and plunged into months of research.

Laura Bridgman was a deaf-blind forerunner of the much more famous Helen Keller, though Bridgman was a celebrity in her own time due to the writing of Bostonian reformer Samuel Gridley Howe in his annual reports from the Perkins Institution for the Blind. Howe’s reports captured the attention of Charles Dickens, who would later write about Laura in his American Notes. Bridgman’s fame as a young pupil, dramatized in this particular scene by Dickens’s 1842 visit to Perkins, obscured what must have been an unimaginably complex life.

Attempting to imagine her life in song and on stage, greatly aided by Elisabeth Gitter’s and Ernest Freeberg’s biographies, was both a delight and a privilege. Jim and I met frequently over the next year and a half as I developed the libretto and he then composed the score. The project came to fruition with its world premiere in 2017 at Oklahoma Baptist University, featuring a nearly all-student cast under the direction of our colleague Rebecca Ballinger Clark.  —BN 



Brent Newsom received the 2020 Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award in poetry from Poets & Writers, and he wrote the libretto for A Porcelain Doll, an opera based on the life of deaf-blind pioneer Laura Bridgman. He is the author of Love’s Labors (CavanKerry Press, 2015), which was a finalist for the Oklahoma Book Award in poetry. His poems have also appeared in Southern ReviewHopkins ReviewPANK, Cave Wall, and other journals.

James Vernon directs the Music Composition program at Oklahoma Baptist University and has composed works for instrumental, choral, and vocal idioms, as well as music for stage play productions. He is currently completing work on music for the OBU Theater production of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Other recent compositions include Dover Beach (2020) for mixed choir and wind band, Psalm 57 (2019) for mixed choir and piano, Ithaca (2019) for women’s choir, strings, and piano, My Words Are Like The Stars (2018) for tenor and percussion, O God, Our Help In Ages Past (2018) for men’s choir and piano, In Retrospect (2018) for cello and piano, Love Came Down For Christmas (2017) for women’s choir and piano, Love Song (2017) for women’s choir and piano, and A Porcelain Doll, a full-length opera. Vernon’s compositions have been performed throughout the United States and in Western Europe.