Alumni Spotlight with Marianna Mott Newirth: Where Opera Has No Bounds

It was the early 1970s, and Marianna Mott Newirth was a young girl who loved ballet. Math…not so much. She’d reverse numbers, letters, and concepts so often that her family would sit with her at the table for “tortuous evenings” trying to get through her math problems. 

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Newirth performing at a spoken word festival in New Jersey (October 2023).

They eventually hired an imaginative tutor who drew a giant long division problem on the floor and asked Newirth to choreograph a dance through the long division.

“I was literally dancing through math,” Newirth recalled, “and that was a revelation for my parents and a moment I will never forget. I thought, ‘Oh! I can literally move my body through space and begin the mechanism of working long division.’”

“That gave me the knowledge that I don’t have to do math the way everybody else says I have to do it,” she added. “It’s a harder road to haul, but I just knew I would be okay.”

Newirth is now an accomplished librettist—one who writes stories for operas. (Musicians then write the music around it.) Her learning differences inspired her to write Mechanisms, a short opera piece commissioned by the Opera Theater of St. Louis. The performance will premiere there in March 2024.

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Newirth with Greg Moomjy, her partner in opera. They co-founded Opera Praktikos, a disability-affirming opera company. The photo was taken at their first production, Handel's Orlando.

“Mechanisms is a semi-autobiographical story of a neurodivergent girl in fifth grade math class,” Newirth explained. “She has synesthesia, and the story is of the girl fighting for agency in the way she learns and understands numbers. She relates to numbers as colors, and the colors speak to her and explain how they go together when she’s doing a math problem. Everyone around her is saying, ‘What colors? What are you talking about?’ and her struggle is for them to see her experience as a valid one.”

Newirth was selected to write the piece as part of the Opera Theater’s New Works Collective, which seeks to bring modern-day stories to the stage for non-traditional opera audiences. She’s excited about the possibility for Mechanisms to be performed beyond St. Louis, too!

Newirth was raised in Wilton, Connecticut and now lives in New York City. Since graduating from Eagle Hill School more than four decades ago, she’s written numerous short operas, plays, short stories, and TV documentaries (and she even learned puppetry).

But a chance encounter with journalist and opera fan Greg Moomjy launched her in an entirely new direction: co-founder of a nonprofit organization, Opera Praktikos, which aims to make opera more accessible.

To Newirth, “That means all levels of accessibility, not just wheelchair access. It’s a much bigger context. It’s about using opera to expand and share Black stories, Asian stories, and disability stories—the full range of diversity, equity, and inclusion—with people who would never even think of coming to the opera.”

How did Opera Praktikos get its start? Newirth tells the story:

“I was at a two-day business symposium at OPERA America in 2016. I wasn't looking to start an opera company or anything; I was only a librettist trying to break into the tight-knit circle of opera people. In the room, there was this guy in a motorized wheelchair, Greg Moomjy, with extensive cerebral palsy and an encyclopedic knowledge of opera. I introduced myself and asked what he hoped to get out of the symposium.

Greg looked me right in the eye and said, "I want to run an opera company someday."

I'm like, "Good on you!" and we became friends. We went on with our lives. Then 2020 came and as venues closed due to the pandemic I began writing the opera, Touch, with composer Carla Lucero about the adult life of Helen Keller.

This put me on a path to deepen my understanding of the lived experience of people with disabilities. Greg became our first disability consultant on the project. A year later, when I had an opportunity to produce Orlando, a baroque opera in a community garden on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, I called Greg, and Opera Praktikos was born.

Throughout all our projects, Greg will identify things that I, an able-bodied person, don't ever have to think about when going into a theatre or a building of any kind. This is the impetus that got New York City's first disability-affirmative opera company off the ground."

As Opera Praktikos evolves (it incorporated in 2022), Newirth would love to shatter misconceptions that performers with disabilities are liabilities to work with.

“Our goal is to empower disability creativity, to be able to access someone’s creativity through their perceived disability. There is always a solution, and we can work with what they have. We, able-bodied people, need to let go of thinking our way is the only way to get something done.”

Newirth recently re-connected with other Eagle Hill grads at an alumni event in New York, and she looks forward to sharing her story with others in the Eagle Hill community.

She said, “I’m happy to tell my story and let kids and parents know there is life after Eagle Hill—a very wonderful life.”

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Topics: Alumni Spotlight