In “Awakenings”, Opera Theater presents the real Oliver Sacks

Dr. Oliver Sacks has won worldwide acclaim for writing about his experiences with people with unusual neurological disorders. His work has resulted in several adaptations for stage and screen.

A 1990 film adaptation of his 1973 book “Awakenings” starred Robin Williams as a doctor based on Sacks and Robert Deniro as one of his patients. It earned three Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture.

Months before Sacks died in 2015 At 82, he revealed something he had previously felt uncomfortable talking about publicly: he was gay.

Now two of Sacks’ longtime friends have written an opera based on “Awakenings.” For the first time, an adaptation of Sacks’ writing will present him, with accuracy, as a homosexual.

“Awakenings” world premiere at Opera Theater St. Louis This weekend.

Brian Munoz


St. Louis Public Radio

Composer Tobias Picker, left, and his librettist husband Aryeh Lev Stollman Tuesday at the St. Louis Opera Theater in Webster Groves. Picker and Stollman adapted Oliver Sacks’ book “Awakenings” about his experiences treating patients with lethargic encephalitis.

“I knew Private Dr. Sacks. The fact that he came out meant we could really write about him, because we knew him personally,” the composer said. Tobie Picker. “He wanted the world to know who he really was, as much as possible. That became essential to telling the story.

Picker wrote the opera with her husband, Aryeh Lev Stollman, who also knew Sacks. Stollman is an acclaimed novelist who had never written a libretto before. But he had a different qualification on his CV: a neuroradiologist, he works at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.

James Robinson is the opera director and Roberto Kalb conducts the members of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

“Awakenings” chronicles Sacks’ time with patients with lethargic encephalitis at a hospital in the Bronx. The mysterious illness had left them functionally asleep for decades. Sacks tried experimental therapy, which temporarily awoke them from sleep.

“There is a great weight of responsibility that rests with everyone involved in the project. We all want to treat these people with the utmost respect because what they have been through is so huge,” said Susana Phillips, who appears in the opera as Rose, a patient with lethargic encephalitis.


Brian Munoz


St. Louis Public Radio

Susanna Phillips rehearses as Rose, a patient who pretends to dance with the love of her life, on Tuesday during a scene set at the New York Botanical Garden in the first act of the opera “Awakenings.”

At the time of the events described in the book, Sacks was still 46 years from coming out publicly. By revisiting the story now, the people behind the opera aim to paint a fuller and more accurate picture of the man.

“There’s a chance to go back and tell that story again, with the perspective of where it came from later in life,” said baritone Jarrett Porter, who plays Sacks. “It makes me feel this immense responsibility and sensitivity to this.”

A doctor and a friend

Picker was already a successful composer of European classical music when he first contacted Sacks years ago, hoping the doctor could help him with his Tourette syndrome.

The composer still experiences symptoms, which he describes as a burden. But Sacks was the first person to show genuine interest in how Picker felt about his own condition.

“He helped me come to terms with Tourette syndrome and feel like it was good to have it,” Picker said.

Composer Tobias Picker

Brian Munoz


St. Louis Public Radio

Composer Tobias Picker before the world premiere of the opera ‘Awakenings’ on Tuesday at the St. Louis Opera Theater in Webster Groves

Sacks wrote about his new friend in two books, theorizing a connection between Tourette’s syndrome and Picker’s early compositional style, which may feature abrupt shifts in tone and dynamics.

Picker returned the favor by teaming up with choreographer Aletta Collins to write a ballet inspired by “Awakenings.” It premiered in 2010 and toured the UK. He also wanted to write an opera based on Sacks’ life, which the neurologist encouraged.

“That says so much about him”

The missing piece was Sack’s decision to come out publicly as a gay man, which he did in his 2015 memoir. It was published months before his death.

For their opera, Picker and Stollman augment the actual events of the book with an unrequited love triangle between Sacks, a doctor known as Mr. Rodriguez (Andres Acosta), and patient Leonard Lev, sung by Marc Molomot. Adrienne Danrich and Susanna Philips play two other patients, Miriam and Rose. At a workshop last year at Opera Fusion in Cincinnati, Matthew DiBattista sang Leonard and Joyner Horn sang his mother, Iris.

This “Awakenings” includes a flashback to an incident Sacks related in his memoir. When he was a teenager, his mother found out he was gay and became furious. She called him an abomination and said she wished he had never been born.

This episode is key to understanding Sacks and the empathy he had for people whose medical conditions made them strangers, Picker said.

“It explains so much about him, and his attitude towards his job and his attitude towards wanting to help these patients,” he said.

For years, Sacks has spoken freely in interviews with his decades-long celibacy. But traumatized by his mother’s response many years ago, he lived most of his life unwilling to live openly as a gay man.

It is a struggle that has weighed on several generations of men associated with opera, including its subject, its librettist and its star.

“As a gay man, I’ve also struggled with how I’m going to live my life,” Stollman said. Like Sacks, Stollman grew up in a family of Orthodox Jews. His father was a rabbi. “Am I going to pretend all my life? Or have a life filled with love, which I have. So for me, it’s actually a very personal aspect of this story.

Porter had a comparable experience.

“In my generation, I felt late to coming out as a gay man – I had just turned 29. It’s very different from Oliver, who came out as a gay man. he was over 80 years old.

“But I certainly understand that struggle and what it felt like. It makes me feel like I have a lot to hold on to, with him,” Porter said.

Composer Tobias Picker with Oliver Sacks color.jpeg

Saint-Louis Opera Theater

Tobias Picker and Oliver Sacks became friends after Picker approached the doctor for help with his Tourette syndrome. Sacks has written about Picker in two books, and Picker has adapted “Awakenings” into ballet and now opera.

A missing friend

Sacks paid close attention to how Williams portrayed him in the 1990 film “Awakenings,” attended Picker’s ballet, and occasionally asked his friend about the status of his opera plans.

He reportedly showed up for opening night at the St. Louis Opera Theater this weekend, the composer said.

“I think he would have been a little embarrassed and shy about it, but I think he would have been just thrilled – and extremely excited and nervous,” Picker said. “He loved opera, he loved music, and it would have been a great pleasure for him, I think. And for me, to be with him here.

Sacks finally found the love of his life. During the last six years of his life he was in her first romantic relationship — a happy pairing with writer Bill Hayes.

After spending decades struggling to acknowledge his sexuality, the great storyteller finally imagined a happy ending.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

About Madeline J. Carter

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