By C.B. Adams

I hold it true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.

– “In Memoriam:27”, Alfred Lord Tennyson

To key off Tennyson’s philosophical proposition, Opera Theatre of St. Louis’s “Awakenings,” at the Loretto-Hilton Center’s Virginia Jackson Browning Theatre through June 25, explores a similar notion. If you were a patient trapped for decades by encephalitis lethargica , spending your waking moments in constant stupor and inertia, would you agree to allow a doctor like the neurologist Oliver Sacks to experimentally administer a drug called levodopa, or L Dopa, that could alleviate the disease’s debilitating effects? And, would you consent if you knew the risks – that the effects might not last long and that you would still suffer, like a sort of Rip Van Winkle, from spending decades isolated from the world’s events and your own maturity and development?

Is it better, then, to have been awakened than not at all?

 That’s a powerful philosophical question dreamed up in Sack’s book “Awakenings” that presented a series of fascinating case reports of patients trapped by encephalitis lethargica. It was also dreamed up into the eponymous Hollywood film (starring Robert DeNiro and Robin Williams), a documentary, a ballet and a play by Harold Pinter. Sacks himself dreamed it could even be this opera, a pandemic delayed premiere by OTSL this season. 

Andres Acosta and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

This production draws the audience into the clinical but dreamlike world even before the score begins. The opening set evokes an impersonal, sterile hospital setting as nurses slowly wheel in slumped patients behind a series of moveable glass walls. Though not “pretty,” the harsh, set design by Allen Moyer is visually affecting and well-matched to the opera’s melancholic intensity (including a fantastic use of video projections by Greg Emetaz), especially as illuminated by Christoper Akerlind’s lighting designs.

The “Awakenings” score, performed by the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Robert Kalb, is excellent if not exactly memorable. The music weaves around the characters and action without calling attention to itself.

Baritone Jarrett Porter sings Dr. Sacks, and his rich voice is well-matched to the demands of the role as a deeply empathetic caregiver. Porter’s voice is well-matched to  the bass-baritone of  David Pittsinger, who voices Sacks’s naysaying boss, Dr. Podsnap. Pittsinger’s presence and deep voice provide believable authority.

One of the key reasons “Awakenings” shines is the opera’s balancing of multiple “awakenings” by Sacks, who grapples with his sexuality in a subplot, as well as three patients that representing the 20 in real life. They provide more than yeoman’s work as they must sit in wheelchairs – all trembles and contortions – and then transform into walking/talking human beings then return to their un-awakened states.

Susannah Phillips and Jarrett Porter. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Marc Molomot, tenor, plays a middle-aged Leonard, whose aging mother (sung beautifully and dutifully by Katherine Goeldner) has been reading to him every day since he succumbed to his condition. Molomot confidently provides a Leonard who hasn’t emotionally matured since adolescence. He’s a boy in a man’s body, which makes life exciting, challenging and ultimately disturbing. Molomot plays Leonard with aplomb.

One of the highlights of “Awakenings” is Leonard’s duet with Rodriguez, his male nurse, sung by the tenor Andres Acosta. Acosta proves there are no parts too small to stand out.

Another of the trio of patients is Rose, engagingly sung by Susannah Phillips. Rose is an optimistic yet dreamy character, still living in an interrupted past that includes a long-gone love. Phillips’s performance and engaging voice make it easy to start identifying with her fairytale outlook and then mourn as she returns to her former state.

Completing the trio is Miriam H, sung by soprano Adrienne Danrich. Miriam’s story is as unique and ultimately tragic as her cohorts. Like Rose, Miriam’s story moves from silence to astonishment as she discovers that her family considered her dead and that she has a daughter and even granddaughter. Danrich’s performance and beautiful voice elevate the tragedy of her return to silence.

As directed by James Robinson, “Awakenings” is a compelling experience – one that calls to mind Bob Dylan’s Series of Dreams:  “…Thinking of a series of dreams / Where the time and the tempo drag, / And there’s no exit in any direction…”

Long after the performances fade, the philosophical and ethical questions posed by “Awakenings” linger. Would have the lives of Mirian, Rose and Leonard (and perhaps even Sacks himself) have been better if they hadn’t been intervened by L Dopa? And who should be allowed to make that choice? One person’s dream may be another’s nightmare.

Jarrett Porter as Dr Oliver Sacks. Photo by Eric Woolsey.

Andrew Jorgensen, general director of Opera Theatre, announced the cancellation of the 2020 festival season that was to open May 23 and run through June 28 with this repertory: the world premiere of Tobias Picker and Aryeh Lev Stollman’s Awakenings, Bizet’s gripping opera Carmen, Strauss’ effervescent comedy Die Fledermaus, and the long-awaited company premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah

Here is his April 7 announcement:

I hope that you and your loved ones are safe and healthy. Normally at the beginning of spring in St. Louis, we are bustling with activity to prepare for Opera Theatre’s festival season — building sets, sewing costumes, and preparing to start rehearsals. Unfortunately, that is not the case today. Like you, we have been following the news of COVID-19 and taking appropriate precautions. It is now with great regret that we are forced to cancel Opera Theatre’s 2020 Festival Season.

Until recently, I held out hope that we might adapt our festival season and still produce opera in June. However, it has become clear that it is no longer possible to present our festival. More importantly, it would not be safe to convene hundreds of artists, staff, and audience members night after night — we must all do our part to flatten the curve. 

This is difficult news to share. This crisis has had a devastating impact on so many, including the artists and artisans who rely upon companies like ours for their livelihoods. Thanks to the unwavering support of our Board of Directors, we have made the commitment to honor 50% of the expected income for each of the 380 seasonal members of our company — including singers, artisans, production crew and staff, front of house staff, administrative interns, and our partner, the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra — and will retain 100% of our year-round staff.

We are heartbroken that we won’t be able to share a season with you this year, but now we are asking for your help. Though we know this is a difficult time for organizations and individuals alike, by choosing to convert your 2020 season ticket purchase into a tax-deductible donation, you will ensure OTSL continues to support our artists and artisans now and in the future. You may also choose to convert your purchase into a credit for the 2021 Festival Season or request a partial or full refund. Credit or refund requests must be made by June 30, 2020; any remaining tickets that are undesignated on July 1 will be automatically converted into a tax-deductible donation.
 
If you choose to donate your ticket, every dollar of your donation will be matched up to $500,000, thanks to a special challenge effort led by members of the Board of Directors. I am making a personal commitment to this campaign with a 50% voluntary pay cut through the end of Opera Theatre’s fiscal year. I hope you will join us — your generosity will have twice the impact and will make a real difference for our artistic family. 

In accordance with national guidelines, our Box Office is working remotely through at least the end of April. To expedite your ticket request, please consider filling out the online form below to record your choice between a donation, credit, or refund. You may also contact the Box Office at [email protected] or (314) 961-0644 and leave a message — our staff will return your message as soon as they are able. Thank you in advance for your patience and understanding as it may take us longer than usual to process ticket requests. 

DONATE, CREDIT, OR REFUND YOUR 2020 SEASON TICKETS

Our community will emerge from this crisis, and when we do so, shared artistic experiences will be more powerful than ever. Today, I promise you that we will return to creating art as soon as it is safe to do so. We are already hard at work on our 2021 Festival Season, which will be announced by early fall. Thanks to forty-five years of your generosity and guidance, Opera Theatre is a resilient organization. We have never believed more strongly in our mission, and we look forward to the day when we can once again bring people together through the power and beauty of live opera. 

Thank you for your understanding. Your support and passion make all of our work possible. Until we meet again, I wish you good health and spirits