An opera is a drama. Drama lives on conflict.
The opera Awakenings, currently at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, takes place in a hospital. A hospital offers two obvious sources for conflict: conflict between individuals in the hospital, and the conflict between the physicians and staff and the illness they are trying to treat.
The people in Awakenings have several minor conflicts with each other and one major one. The illness they are all fighting is encephalitis lethargica, sleeping sickness. It makes itself known in the effects it has on the patients: extreme lethargy and sleepiness, awareness of surroundings but with no response to them.
An epidemic of encephalitis lethargica swept the world in the 1920s. Many died. Others continued to live, but in this half-life. They existed in hospitals.
One such hospital was Beth Abraham Hospital in New York’s Bronx. Here, in the 1960s, young Dr. Oliver Sacks noticed similarities between these patients who had been there for decades and individuals with Parkinson’s disease. A new medication, L-DOPA, was successfully treating Parkinson’s patients. Might it also help those with sleeping sickness?
Dr. Sacks wanted to try it. Dr. Podsnap, Beth Abraham’s medical director, was reluctant to let him. Beth Abraham was not a teaching hospital; its patients were not guinea pigs.
But Dr. Podsnap reluctantly granted permission. And it worked. Several patients awoke. They greeted family members. They befriended other patients and staff. They delighted in a visit to the Botanical Garden.
And then it stopped working. The patients all regressed back to their semi-conscious state. But as they went, they thanked Dr. Sacks for giving them their lives back for a few days. And Dr. Podsnap declared the experiment an abomination.
And that’s what happens in the opera Awakenings. Like many dramas, it has an arc of success and failure. The libretto by Aryeh Lev Stollman, himself a physician, is clear and moving. The music by Tobias Picker is amazing. Unlike most operas, it has few arias – a deeply felt one for Sacks as he agonizes over his failure – and much dialogue, exchanges of a few sentences. How does one build a musical score out of that? Picker does it by embedding that dialogue in music whose harmonies and their unfolding give both musical and emotional depth to the whole. Conductor Roberto Kalb and the St. Louis Symphony lift it up for us.
The cast is strong, including even an Emmy winner, Adrienne Danrich, as Miriam H., one of the patients. She and Susanna Phillips’s Rose grow close during their few days awake. Marc Molomot explores the complications of Leonard Lev, the first patient awakened by Sacks, forever watched over by Katharine Goeldner as his mother. Jarrett Porter convincingly explores Sacks’ intelligence and passion. David Pittsinger perfectly embodies the cautious executive Dr. Podsnap. Andres Acosta plays the young nurse Mr. Acosta, who adores Sacks and is adored by Leonard.
Allen Moyer’s set consisted of a stage-wide series of clear glass panels which moved about to form areas in the hospital, supplemented by Greg Emetaz’s video projections, with lighting carefully modulated by Christopher Akerlind. James Schuette designed the costumes and Tom Watson the wigs and makeup. Sean Curran choreographed some brief dance moments. Kevin J. Miller was the chorus master and Annie Shikany the English diction specialist.
Going into it, I saw Awakenings as a serious challenge to anyone attempting to write it or stage it. Opera Theatre met the challenge and then some.
Photo by Eric Woolsey
Susanna Phillips (left) as Rose and Adrienne Danrich as Miriam H. in Tobias Picker’s Awakenings.