By CB Adams

Opera Theatre of St. Louis has concluded a successful and altogether satisfying 48th festival season. But it would be a shame to look forward to the next season without first taking note of a cast change for five of the six performances of this year’s premiere of the performing edition of “Harvey Milk” (music by Stewart Wallace and libretto by Michael Korie).

When the original tenor in the role of Dan White had to withdraw after the premiere, Cesar Andres Parreño provided a two-of-one performance. Not only did he nail the role of White, the real-life nemesis/assassin of civil rights hero Harvey Milk, Parreño also made his principal role debut at Opera Theatre.

This was a busy season for Parreño. His principal role debut occurred on the heels of his performance of the supporting role of Remendado in the company’s production of Bizet’s Carmen his debut role for Opera Theatre. And that after being accepted into Opera Theatre’s Gerdine Young Artist Program, which is committed to discovering, nurturing and launching emerging young artists such as Parreño. Like other young artists in the program, he was offered opportunities to be featured in featured in supporting roles, cover all roles in mainstage productions and perform as featured soloists in the annual Center Stage concert.

Parreño hails Manabí, Ecuador and started his voice studies with Beatriz Parra at Colegio de Artes Maria Callas. He was named a Kovner Fellow in Darrell Babidge’s studio at The Juilliard School, where he was the first Ecuadorian ever to attend. In 2016, Parreño performed as a soloist with the University of Cuenca’s Orchestra and with Guayaquil’s Symphonic Orchestra. Since then, his performances have included his debut role as Lysander in Benjamin Britten’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” in Chautauqua, New York, his soloist debut with the Juilliard Orchestra in Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella and his Peter Jay Sharp Theater opera debut as Momo in Luigi Rossi’s “L’Orfeo.”

Parreño definitely had credible potential to step into the role of Dan White in “Harvey Milk.” Kudos to Opera Theatre for nurturing young talent of his caliber. Anything can happen in live theater – and regularly does – and it is gratifying to know that the show will go on. There’s no way to compare Parreño’s performance with his predecessor’s, but after experiencing his performance, there’s no reason to. Parreño was that good, not only with his beautiful, classic Irish tenor moments, but for his ability to humanize what could otherwise have been a one-dimensional “bad guy.” He may not physically resemble the real-life Smith (a sandy-haired WASP), but that doesn’t – and shouldn’t – matter.

Parreño’s performance can, however, be compared to those of his fellow singers: baritone Thomas Glass (making his own Opera Theatre debut) as Harvey Milk and tenor Jonathan Johnson as Scott Smith, Milk’s lover. During a performance filled with memorable and moving arias by all three men, the best was certainly the deeply affecting love duet between Glass and Smith. It set a high standard for love duets in the future.  

This talented triumvirate were the epitome of the best ensembles – excellent voices, engaging characterizations and spot-on dramatic timing. In other words, Parreño, with his bright tenor, was in very good company.

With its 48th festival season now completed, all the reviews having been published and hoping COVID cancellations are a thing of the past, it’s good to know that young talent is being nurtured, fostered and encouraged through programs like Opera Theatre’s Gerdine Young Artist Program. And that, live theater being live theater, that young talent may unexpectedly get the chance to step into a principal or supporting role. As W. H. Auden once observed, “Drama began as the act of a whole community. Ideally, there would be no speculators. In practice, every member of the audience should feel like an understudy.”

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.