World Premiere of Tobias Picker and Aryeh Lev Stollman’s 'Awakenings' to Continue New Works, Bold Voices Series in 2020

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis announces the world premiere of Tobias Picker and Aryeh Lev Stollman’s Awakenings. The commission is the sixth opera in the New Works, Bold Voices series, a continuing program at OTSL that creates works inspired by the modern American experience. Awakenings will open on June 7, 2020 and run for six performances in a new production directed by OTSL Artistic Director James Robinson. Picker last collaborated with Robinson at OTSL for the 2015 revival of his celebrated opera Emmeline. 

Awakenings is based on the book by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the true story of his astounding treatment of survivors of the great sleeping-sickness pandemic, encephalitis lethargica, which swept across the globe in the early twentieth century. Although millions died, many thousands lived on, left immobile like living statues and housed in large institutions. After nearly half a century, most of those who had survived remained locked away in hospital wards, forgotten and “asleep.” In the late 1960s, by experimenting with the drug L-DOPA used to treat Parkinson’s Disease, Dr. Sacks began to “awaken” these patients — men and women who had never stopped thinking or feeling — temporarily bringing them back to an active and engaged life.

Baritone Jarrett Logan Porter will make his Opera Theatre debut as Dr. Oliver Sacks. The opera will feature the return of tenor David Portillo as Mr. Rodriguez, the nurse caring for the encephalitis lethargica patients. OTSL veterans soprano Joyce El-Khoury and tenor Paul Groves will portray Rose and Leonard, two patients awakened from their immobile states. Mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel makes her OTSL debut as Miriam, another patient of Dr. Sacks. OTSL Resident Conductor Roberto Kalb leads the St. Louis Symphony for this world premiere run.

Composer Tobias Picker said, “Composing Awakenings has been extraordinarily personal. Oliver Sacks, who awakened the ‘human statues,’ was a beloved friend of 25 years who was instrumental in ‘awakening' and reconciling me to my own Tourette’s Syndrome, a condition with which I have struggled most of my life. Beginning in the late 1990s, we often talked about making Awakenings into an opera. It was not until after Oliver’s death in 2015 that James Robinson and OTSL had the vision to see its potential and commission it. Awakenings is also my first collaboration with my husband, the writer and neuroradiologist Aryeh Lev Stollman. The world premiere will take place exactly 40 years since we first met. Awakenings is a modern parable with deep resonance. It is Sleeping Beauty meets 20thcentury medicine and whose ultimate message is love.”

“I’ve had the great pleasure of directing two of Tobias Picker’s operas, the world premiere of Dolores Claiborne for the San Francisco Opera and Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ recent revival of Emmeline,” said Artistic Director James Robinson. “We had been looking for new projects for Tobias when he suggested Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings. It didn’t take long to convince me of its operatic potential, and I am thrilled that Tobias and Aryeh will be working with OTSL to bring this compelling story to life."

Tobias Picker, called "our finest composer for the lyric stage” by The Wall Street Journal, is a composer of numerous works in every genre drawing performances by the world’s leading musicians, orchestras, and opera houses.

Picker’s internationally acclaimed first opera Emmeline premiered in 1996 at The Santa Fe Opera, and was later revived by OTSL in 2015. His second opera, based on Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, premiered at LA Opera, established Picker as a composer of broad appeal. His next three operas —Thérèse Raquin, An American Tragedy, and Dolores Claiborne, which premiered at The Dallas Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, and San Francisco Opera respectively — have received widespread recognition and multiple new productions.

In addition to his five operas, Picker’s catalogue includes four symphonies, tone poems, four piano concertos, concertos for violin, viola, cello and oboe, a melodrama, song cycles, string quartets, chamber music, and a major ballet commissioned by the Rambert Dance Company, also based on Oliver Sacks’Awakenings. His extensive discography includes such labels as Naxos, Sony Classics, Virgin Classics, Chandos, Ondine, Tzadik, and Albany Records. Tobias Picker has been Artistic Director of Tulsa Opera since 2016. His music is published exclusively worldwide by Schott Music.

Aryeh Lev Stollman's first novel, The Far Euphrates (Riverhead), is a winner of the Lambda Literary Award, an American Library Association Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Book Review Recommended Book of the Year, and National Book Critics Circle Notable Book. The New York Times Book Review has called The Far Euphrates "radiant . . . remarkable both for Stollman's eloquently understated prose and for the ease with which he constructs his artful plot." The Boston Sunday Globe called his second novel, The Illuminated Soul (Riverhead), "an admirable novel of ideas . . . profound.”

Stollman is also the author of a story collection The Dialogues of Time and Entropy (Riverhead). His story "Lotte Returns!" was commissioned and broadcast by National Public Radio.

His third novel, Malkat Yerushalayim – Queen of Jerusalem, is forthcoming from Arye Nir/Modan in 2020.

Dr. Stollman is a neuroradiologist at the Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

OTSL’s New Works, Bold Voices series began in 2012, underwritten in part by a generous $1 million challenge grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; the Foundation’s leadership support of this initiative continues through 2021. The series is dedicated to creating resonant new works by American composers. Previous works in the New Works, Bold Voices series include Terence Blanchard and Michael Cristofer’s Champion, Ricky Ian Gordon and Royce Vavrek’s “27,” Jack Perla and Rajiv Joseph’s Shalimar the Clown, Huang Ruo and David Henry Hwang’s An American Soldier, and the upcoming premiere of Terence Blanchard and Kasi Lemmons’ Fire Shut Up in My Bones.