Oliver Wolf Sacks (1933-2015) was a medical pioneer. A renowned physician and professor, the London-born and eventually New York-based Jewish neurologist may be best known for using levodopa on post- encephalitis lethargica patients in the Bronx caught in the “sleeping-sickness” epidemic of the 1920s.
The general public may be aware of that medical breakthrough thanks to the acclaimed 1990 film “Awakenings” starring Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer, who is based on Sacks. Last year, composer Tobias Picker and his writer/neuro-radiologist spouse, Aryeh Lev Stollman, premiered an English language opera based on Sacks’ own 1973 bestseller of the same name at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis.
Recently, Picker and Stollman – both friends of Sacks – spoke to the Journal about their collaboration, which will have its East Coast premiere by Odyssey Opera and Boston Modern Opera Project at the Huntington Avenue Theatre in a one-night-only performance Feb. 25.
Picker – whom Sacks “freed” from the shame he felt over his Tourette’s syndrome – revealed that “I wanted to do something of his, and he suggested ‘Awakenings.’”
While Sacks “was on the set [of the movie] at the time and became a friend of Robin Williams” and “loved going to the opera,” the Picker-Stollman effort “portrays him as the gay man that he was – not the Hollywood version.” Pointing out that “It’s all tied in with the plot,” Picker noted, “He [Sacks] has his own awakening.”
That personal awakening involves Sacks’ own mother calling his gay orientation an abomination. “She says he should never have been born,” Picker said.
Arias, ensemble pieces, and choruses evoke the title experiences – set from 1966 to 1969 in a Bronx hospital in a two-hour, 10-minute opera (including one intermission) that Picker termed “very lyrical and melodic.”
Where Picker saw himself as “part of the Western classical tradition,” he did admit that “My musical language is imbued with Jewish melody. It’s my lineage.” If his earlier music for “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” featured specific Jewish music, here “It’s subtle.”
As for the libretto Stollman wrote – which came first – he stressed that it is “solely based on the book. The histories [of Sacks’ patients] rose to the level of allegory and myth,” he noted, “There’s a lot of subtext that is biblical and Greek.”
“They had more character than regular case histories,” Stollman continued, “In his 30s [Sacks] knew he was experiencing something extraordinary but related to their humanity.”
Admitting that “My challenge was to make a story out of all these patients,” the librettist “read [Sacks’] case histories over and over again until the characters came alive for me.” The people Sacks treated, he observed, “were very intense in their lives – lives of imagination.” To capture that intensity, “There are emotional flashbacks for some of the patients.”
Look for dramatic material dealing with such themes as unrequited love and the separation of a mother from her child.
James Robinson, the artistic director of the Opera Theatre of St. Louis, will helm the premiere. Stollman called him “a wonderful dramaturg.” Grammy winner Gil Rose, artistic director of both the Odyssey Opera and Boston Modern Opera Project, will conduct.
With Jarrett Porter in the lead role of Dr. Sacks, the Hub cast includes Adrienne Danrich as Miriam, Joyce El- Khoury as Rose and Andrew Morstein as Leonard Lev. Picker plans to be involved with the BMOP/sound recording of the opera, which is set to be released this summer.
“I’ll be at the sessions and I’ll be supervising,” he promised. Θ
For tickets to the 7:30 p.m. show, visit odysseyopera.org or call 617-826-1626.