She was the first person known to read, write and communicate while being both deaf and blind.

She was a world-renowned author, speaker and advocate for the disabled.

She was named to Time Magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the 20th Century.

She was an Alabama native, Tuscumbia, 1880.

Now, Helen Keller is the subject of an opera, "TOUCH," and its first-ever showing will be in Birmingham on January 19 and 21. The premiere is presented by Opera Birmingham at RMT Arts Campus, located at 1600 3rd Avenue South, Birmingham.

On Friday, January 19, curtains go up at 7:30 p.m. On Sunday, January 21, 2:30 p.m. A chat with the composer and co-librettists will be held one hour before each performance.

Tickets are available at Opera Birmingham. Ticket prices are based on demand, with adult tickets starting at $25. Student tickets are $10.

"TOUCH" was commissioned by Opera Birmingham. It portrays, in drama and opera, Helen Keller and three of her confidantes.

The opera "TOUCH" picks up where the Helen Keller play "The Miracle Worker" ended, exploring the complex relationships among Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan, John Macy (Sullivan’s husband), and Peter Fagan, Helen’s interpreter and romantic partner.

Opera Birmingham described the opera "TOUCH" as:

“A world-renowned humanitarian, Helen Keller fiercely advocated for women’s suffrage, civil rights, and disability rights. Helen’s 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. Helen’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.”

“This two-act chamber opera features three principal singing roles (Anne Sullivan, husband 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 is orchestrated for seven players: flute, bassoon, percussion, prepared piano, and string trio. Birmingham’s own Alie B. Gorrie will perform the role of Helen Keller, and Michelle Allie Drever will sing the role of Anne Sullivan Macy. The production will feature the Alabama Symphony Orchestra.

“TOUCH addresses themes of disability and agency. The opera 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 has been developed to include low-vision and low-hearing artists in all facets of the opera. “Opera Birmingham works to ensure accessibility for audience members, from ASL interpreters at performances and Braille program notes to assisted listening devices and audio description services. For a full list of accessibility services, click here.

“Sung in English with projected English text. Interpreted in American Sign Language (ASL). Audio descriptions will be available. Braille and large print programs are available by request at entry. The length of the opera is approximately 90 minutes.”

"TOUCH" was written by Carla Lucero and Marianna Mott Newirth.

One hour before each show is a pre-show chat with the composer and co-librettists. After each show is a "talk-back" with the cast and creatives.

Helen Keller (June 27, 1880 – June 1, 1968) was an author, disability advocate, political activist and lecturer. She was born in Tuscumbia in the “Shoals Area” near the banks of Alabama’s Tennessee River. She was born in the family home, Ivy Green, which is now a historical site and open to the public.

She was born with full sight and hearing but lost both at 19 months old after an illness, possibly meningitis. She then communicated primarily using made-up signs until she met her teacher and long-time companion Anne Sullivan at age seven.

Sullivan taught Keller language, including reading and writing. Sullivan became Helen’s 50-year teacher, governess and later companion.

After studying at both specialist and mainstream schools, Keller attended Radcliffe College and became the first deaf and blind person in the United States to earn a Bachelor’s degree.

Keller worked for the American Foundation for the Blind from 1924 to 1968. During this time, she toured the United States and traveled to 35 countries around the globe advocating for those with vision loss.

With the assistance of Anne Sullivan and others, Keller wrote 14 books and hundreds of speeches and essays. Keller campaigned for those with disabilities, for women’s right to vote, and for world peace. 

The producer of "TOUCH," Opera Birmingham, is Alabama’s largest opera company. It has entertained audiences for 66 years and produced 54 operas.

Keith A. Wolfe is the general director of Opera Birmingham.

“An opera begins long before the curtain goes up and ends long after it has come down. It starts in my imagination, it becomes my life, and it stays part of my life long after I've left the opera house.”  - Maria Callas

[This story has been updated]

Jim Zeigler is a former Alabama Public Service Commissioner and State Auditor. You can reach him for comments at [email protected].

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