An Oliver Sacks Book Becomes an Opera, With Help From Friends

With little room for Sacks’s panorama of patients, Stollman combined some into composite characters. But Leonard L., who receives a long, affectionate chapter in the book, remains largely intact and is even intensified. And while Sacks describes the cases at an invested remove, the opera treats him as the protagonist, drawing on his 2015 autobiography “On the Move: A Life” for details — including his long-private homosexuality.

“We wanted to put that in,” Stollman said, “instead of making a fake straight woman love interest like in the movie.”

In the score, Picker gives Sacks a musical analogue: the note A, which the opera opens with in octaves, before being propelled by an ostinato. The move subtly establishes the doctor’s presence before he arrives, as the chorus recounts the tale of Sleeping Beauty with a lilting melody. It’s one of several leitmotifs attached to specific characters — and the disease itself.

Roberto Kalb, the production’s conductor, said the music also draws from a variety of styles: “Some sections are reminiscent of Janacek, some Ravel. The passage in the botanical garden sounds like a blend of Couperin and Ravel.” The use of a pedal tone, he added, pays off when, as the treatment starts to fail, it plunges downward. “It’s so destabilizing,” Kalb said. “It sounds like you’re going down a tunnel.”

That failure is the tragedy of “Awakenings,” its most operatic quality. The miracle of L-dopa fades, along with the promise of renewed life. In parallel, Sacks has a brush with his true self in a subplot involving a male nurse, but retreats to the closet.

“He had his own journey,” Picker said. “And in the end, his ‘awakening’ didn’t come until the autobiography, which was very freeing for him.”

Sacks was intensely reticent, even in the safe company of someone like Picker. So the opera’s glimpse of his gay life is an invention — a double-edged one that acknowledges what could have been and what eventually would come. After what Stollman describes in the libretto as a sad smile, the Sacks character sings:

I am no longer the man I was,
but I have not truly awakened yet.
This time is not the time for me.
Perhaps one day when I’ve lived long enough,
love will happen.
Not with medicine but with such a simple kiss.

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