IN: Reviews

Operatic “Awakening” of Oliver Sacks’s Memoir


Odyssey Opera in partnership with Boston Modern Orchestra Project staged a two-act opera that recounts the poignant real-life story of the young neurologist Dr. Sacks treating patients beset by a mysterious sleeping sickness. Their early joyous awakening and initial improvements give way to treatment side effects that ultimately lead to discontinuation of the therapy. Sacks died in 2015 and only witnessed the 2010 ballet adaptation of Awakenings; we imagine he would have appreciated the operatic version in the newly renovated and re-opened Huntington Theater in Boston.

The first act of Awakenings begins with an echo of Brothers Grimm’s Sleeping Beauty: “A slumber fell upon the kingdom…and all the castle slept.” The violins play a sad melody from the pit underlined by cello rhythm as Nurse Rodriguez introduces Sacks to his lethargic patients. The music from the full opera orchestra becomes more dramatic as the director of Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, Dr. Podsnap, quarrels with Sacks, but ultimately allows him to treat the first patient with L-DOPA.

The sad theme of his first patient Leonard (impersonated by rich tenor and gifted actor Andrew Morstein) who had fallen victim to the disease at age 10 and had since been attended by his dedicated mother, mezzo-soprano Katharine Goeldner, was beautifully intoned by flute and harp; when he however responds to the treatment, drums generate the excitement, and pizzicato celli underline his joyful walking. The general exuberance as all patients awake is expressed in a waltz with dramatic strings and rhythmic violins.

Flute and harps summon up the complexities of the awakening, as patients reminisce about their lost 40 years of life.

Cesar Delgado Andrew Morstein Jarrett Porter (KathyWittman photo)

It is probably not a coincidence that an outdoor adventure led the awakened group into the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx: Oliver Sacks’s 80th birthday was celebrated there. Illustrated by joyous melodies from the orchestra, stage director James Robinson transformed the hospital setting into the New York Botanical Gardens by turning the top of the stage into a large greenhouse projection, displaying flowers in the background and dressing the singers in floral fabrics. The staging matched the dark green interior of the tastefully renovated Huntington Theater. Inspired by nature, Nurse Rodriguez radiates infatuation with Sacks, unaware of Leonard’s longing gaze in this unfolding triangulation.

Back in the hospital, lyric soprano Adrienne Danrich as patient Miriam beautifully and passionately expresses her joy of meeting her daughter Lily. Soprano Victoria Davis as Lily introduces her own daughter before telling Miriam dramatically about her father making them believe that Miriam was dead. Taking on patient Rose, Joyce El-Khoury melancholically reminisces over a harp solo about the man she wanted to marry.

With a projected backdrop of newspaper articles about the treated patients, Act 2 begins with a jazzy theme as the patients celebrate joy about their unexpected fame. Rich-voiced bass-baritone Keith Klein as Podsnap spoils the party; he is jealous of Sacks’s success as the proverbial prince in the Grimm allegory who awakened his patients. Podsnap voices (together with lower string rhythms) concerns about therapy’s side effects that become apparent in hallucinations and tremors in the patients. As Rose develops epilepsy, first chorus and orchestra scream, but then become quiet. Despite his own convulsions, Leonard shares a passionate kiss with Rodriguez with a melody that reminds of Bach cantatas.

A flashback into Sacks’s own traumatic past ensues: He joyfully tells his parents about having won an Oxford scholarship, but his mother (sung by powerful dramatic contralto Stephanie Kacoyanis), accompanied by a sorrow violin, wishes that he had never been born, as she and her husband (sung by baritone David Small) complain that Sacks cannot find a girlfriend.

Back at the hospital, dissonant waves of string pizzicato announce the discontinuation of the medication for all patients. Sacks leaves the stage with a desperate violin solo.

Podsnap expresses regret for ever permitting administration of the medicine, but patients appreciate their, albeit short, relief. Cesar Delgado’s passionately impersonated Rodriguez expresses his love for Sacks who claims that he is not yet “fully awakened.” In a dramatic chorus, patients reach the end of their fate together. Trombones and violins virtually escort vibrant baritone Jarrett Porter as Sacks leaves the premises with a melody that evokes Bach’s St. Matthew’ Passion “We sit down in tears (Wir setzen uns mit Tränen nieder).” Slumber falls again upon the hospital.

Composer Tobias Picker with his (life and opera) partner, librettist and neuroradiologist Aryeh Lev Stollman together with Gil Rose, Artistic and General Director, and the production team of Odyssey Opera in partnership with Boston Modern Orchestra Project artistically created a piece with compelling characters that expresses relevance on many levels: The elegant score amplifies the human condition by including timely topics such as medicine, workplace politics and sexual identity in an artistically engaging manner. Themes of rebirth, hope amidst loss, love amidst uncertainty resonate deeply as we all continue to grapple with the long twilight of our current pandemic, whose long-term effects—physical and neurological—remain unknown. Like all the brave healthcare professionals and resilient patients embarking on new therapies, art needs courageous experimentation as well. Gil Rose, quite comfortable with experimentation, showed his versatility of style and sophistication.

Awakenings was originally scheduled to premiere at Opera Theater St. Louis in June 2020 (three decades after the Hollywood film with Robin Williams as Dr. Sacks), and the COVID-related delay further emphasized and even brought new meaning to this moving story of sadness and hope which deeply resonated with the excited audience and served both as a memento mori and a tribute to the power of healing though medicine, music, words, and time.

With a biochemistry PhD and a career in the life sciences industry, Stephanie Oestreich also performs as a violinist and conducts workshops with orchestras demonstrating the similarities between teams and leadership in music and management.


More Pictures by Kathy Wittman, Ball Square Films Follow




3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. It was a pleasure to work on this piece with the composer in attendance. Terrific piece with a great cast.

    Comment by Jesse Martin — February 27, 2023 at 11:01 am

  2. I was perplexed by an apparent conundrum — how can people who have been immobile for decades get up and walk as if they had just gotten out of bed? The redesign of the Huntington Theater is a crime. The beautiful proscenium arch is gone, the front doors are sealed shut. One must enter through a door on the right and then around to the box office and the entrance to the theater. It is, to my mind, probably the greatest crime in Boston architecture since the obliteration of Boston’s historic center and the construction of City Hall over 60 years ago. The Huntington Theater was a gem of a theater, now destroyed for what reason I cannot imagine. Now it’s just another modern characterless black box.

    Comment by Jan Dovenitz — March 1, 2023 at 10:39 pm

  3. Thank you for this exceptional review, which amply demonstrates its assertion at the outset that Dr. Sacks would have appreciated this operatic version of “Awakenings.” Yes, the delay in performance caused by the pandemic does give “new meaning to this moving story of sadness and hope.”

    Comment by Robert J. Scholnick — March 3, 2023 at 7:58 am

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