Before we entered the Huntington Theatre on Saturday evening for the New England premiere of “Awakenings,” a new opera inspired by an episode in the life of neurologist Oliver Sacks, my plus-one — a dear friend who introduced me to Sacks’s work many years ago — warned me that he might fall asleep during the show, as he had during “Die Fledermaus,” “The Barber of Seville,” and every other opera he’d seen in his 30-some years. I told him not to worry because he probably wouldn’t be the only one.
I glanced at him several times during the performance. Invariably, his eyes were wide open. “I needed that,” he said as we pulled our coats on afterward, both of us reeling from the impact of what we had just experienced. “Awakenings” only premiered last summer at its commissioning house, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, so it may be too early to declare it a modern classic, but given the opportunity I think it will become one. I’m just disappointed that Odyssey Opera and Boston Modern Orchestra Project only mounted one performance; had there been another, I would have been telling all my friends to see it.
The opera “Awakenings” is a creation of veteran composer Tobias Picker and first-time librettist Aryeh Lev Stollman, a neuroradiologist and novelist who has been Picker’s partner for more than 40 years and husband for seven. Both were friends with Sacks for several decades before his death in 2015 from cancer, and Picker — who has Tourette syndrome — was profiled in Sacks’s 2007 book “Musicophilia.” Saturday’s production at the Huntington was directed by James Robinson, with simple modular sets by Allen Moyer and realistically workaday period costumes by James Schuette.
Sacks and Picker started discussing a possible “Awakenings” opera in the late 1990s, but if the opera had manifested sooner, it likely would have told a more straightforward but less resonant story. On one level, “Awakenings” adapts Sacks’s 1973 book of the same name, and tells the story of his patients at the Bronx’s Beth Abraham Hospital (now Beth Abraham Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing), who suffered from severe neurological and psychiatric problems after falling ill with encephalitis lethargica, also known as “sleepy-sickness.” In 1969, Sacks headed up an experimental treatment for these patients with L-DOPA, an amino acid that initially seemed to be a miracle drug.
On another level, it follows Sacks himself during the period documented in “Awakenings,” as he wrestled with his own closeted sexuality alongside the ethical dilemmas of administering experimental treatments. Sacks was gay and grew up in England during an era when homosexuality was criminalized; in his 2015 memoir “On the Move,” he revealed that when he came out to his parents at 18, his mother called him an “abomination” and wished out loud he’d never been born. This scene was also dramatized in the opera, in flashback. As Sacks, baritone Jarrett Porter bore the verbal blow with staggering pathos in the soliloquy that followed.
When even the word “operatic” carries such connotations of melodrama, operas that mine the real lives of everyday people require an especially deft touch on the part of both composer and librettist, lest characters become caricatures. The subject matter of “Awakenings” made this a potential minefield, but Picker and Stollman sidestepped the pitfalls by fictionalizing several details from the patients’ lives as depicted in Sacks’s book, creating amalgams of others, and framing the entire story as a modern-day twist on the Grimm fairy tale “Sleeping Beauty.” The plot was free to draw on archetypes as needed (the “sleepers” all awaken at once, and after the experiment is declared a failure because of the side effects and diminishing efficacy of the drug, they all return to sleep together), but neither doctors nor patients ever felt less than human.
The opera’s three most prominent patients were given life with intelligence and compassion by both the libretto and their onstage portrayers. The characters of Miriam (soprano Adrienne Danrich), Rose (soprano Joyce el-Khoury), and Leonard (tenor Andrew Morstein) awakened to a world drastically changed from the one they’d left behind when they fell ill, and they made tangible the sublime joy and unexpected griefs they found upon waking up in unfamiliar bodies. Morstein’s Leonard was implied to have fallen ill as a young child, and the scene where he enjoyed a first cigarette had me giggling through tears. (You know you’re in the past if they allow smoking in the hospital.)
The music itself, conducted by Odyssey artistic and general director Gil Rose, was rooted in a persistent tone played in a heartbeat-steady rhythm; according to Picker’s program notes, this represented Sacks himself. The large cast included a sizable chorus and several supporting named roles; the crowd scenes incorporating the full ensemble gave the plot structure and tension, but intimate episodes such as a trip to the New York Botanical Garden with the patients, Sacks, and the kind male nurse (tenor César Delgado) pining after him were the opera’s marrow, featuring the score’s most compelling music. I grew to know and care about the characters through these scenes, and so the denouement felt as inevitably tragic as Mimi’s death in “La bohème;” you know it will happen, and yet some part hopes it won’t.
In the end, “Awakenings” is about persistence against odds. In the opera’s final scene, the patients return to sleep as the chorus intones that nothing “could change what Fate ordained,” which is likely the last line you’ll hear on the recording forthcoming from BMOP/Sound. But on Saturday as the music faded, there was Porter as Sacks, standing at the front of the stage and scribbling notes. Contrary to what the music indicated, their stories weren’t over.
Presented by Odyssey Opera in partnership with Boston Modern Orchestra Project. At Huntington Theatre, Feb. 25. www.odysseyopera.org
A.Z. Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.