Backstage with Our Co-Founder, Marianna For those of you who may not know, our co-founder Marianna Mott Newirth recently premiered her latest libretto, Mechanisms, as a part of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ New Works Collective this month. This opera shares a new kind of story of Roe, a neurodivergent girl, and her challenges and triumphs as she makes her path through math class and life. In creating this work, Marianna drew from her own life experiences of growing up with dyslexia and dyscalculia, and we felt it was important to share her experience, bringing Roe’s story to life with all of you. Please enjoy this letter from our co-founder, Marianna.Roe sitting on the ground center stage being embraced by her parents with a colorful mosaic backgroundPhoto taken by Philip Hamer. From left: Kristy Swann as Mrs Waldman, Aaren Rivard as Dean, Helen Zhibing Huang as Roe, and Maria Consamus as Lori“Roe’s journey to the stage started in March 2023, when a community panel of St. Louis artists, entrepreneurs, and advocates selected my pitch for Mechanisms (then untitled) to be part of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ New Works Collective in 2024. What makes this program unique is that the Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL) gave the power to the community-based panel to decide what stories were important to share. At the end of the selection process, three diverse operas about transmission, acceptance, and love remained.
I was paired with composer J. E. Hernández to create “Mechanisms,” who brought a profound atmospheric aesthetic to the story of Roe, a neurodivergent girl in fifth-grade math class, that truly evoked memory and color. I chose to give Roe grapheme-color synesthesia because the visual/color component of the ‘learning disability’ allowed for creativity on the stage, bringing the audience into the mind and world of a neurodivergent individual. With this, we were able to take my composer José’s colorful musical talents, Maestro Aquino’s innovative music direction, and director Kimille Galarita Howard’s keen staging and design to visually and audibly encapsulate Roe’s everyday experiences in a way that illustrated her neurodivergence a wonderful new world to the audience as opposed to a life disadvantage.Starting with my own experience with dyslexia and dyscalculia and building on core memories, I began writing the libretto. Still, I was sure to do extensive research on learning disabilities and grapheme-color synesthesia to look past my own subjective experience. I wanted to ensure I was entering an objective world of people with neurodivergent approaches to living when creating this libretto. One article I came across in my research listed stories from celebrities living with learning disabilities, including Cher and Henry Winkler, whose neurodivergence helped them become the well-known figures they are today. Stack of score books for the different operas being presented as part of the New Works CollectiveInitially, I had titled the work Coping Mechanisms, but after reading that article and speaking with my composer José, we dropped the “coping” and embraced the “mechanisms” we nuerodivergents use to bring value and richness to the world around us. Everything about this work was meant to empower, and we finally had the title to fit. 
Once the libretto was complete, OTSL held a table read with professional actors to go through it without music, helping us see the characters’ relationships and envision the work’s total arc. This allowed me to rearrange scenes, adjust characters, and focus on Roe’s mindmap as she processed information. From there, I could map out the outer world’s expectations that are projected onto Roe’s experience, uncovering the inherent conflict of the work. Group image of all the creators featured in the New Works CollectivePictured: OTSL’s New Works Collective Second CohortThroughout the run, I was approached by numerous people who related deeply to the work, either through their own experiences in school or as parents of neurodivergent children like Roe. It was profoundly rewarding to see how many people were so grateful for the accurate and compassionate representation of neurodivergence they saw through our opera on stage. I see Mechanisms as an advocacy piece for the Roes in the world—it’s a message to the educational system and neurotypical world as a whole to think differently when encountering neurodivergence and allow space to learn from our different brains. 
– Marianna Mott Newirth”
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