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Music by: Tobias Picker

Libretto by: Aryeh Lev Stollman

Duration: 100 mins

Commissioned by: Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, 2022

Premiere: Opera Theater of Saint Louis, 2022


Awakenings is based on Dr. Oliver Sacks’ acclaimed 1973 book, which relates his astonishing work with victims of the great sleeping-sickness pandemic of 1916-1927, Encephalitis Lethargica. Although millions died during the pandemic, many thousands lived on to be left “frozen,” like living statues, often locked away in hospital wards, forgotten and “asleep.” In the late 1960s, Sacks recognized that real lives were trapped inside these forlorn bodies. By experimenting with the wonder drug L-DOPA used to treat Parkinson’s, he began to bring these patients back into being— real people who had lost decades of their lives.



Dr. Oliver Sacks; mid-30’s, a neurologist – Baritone

Dr. Podsnap; mid-50’s, medical director Beth Abraham – Bass

Mr. Rodriguez; early 30’s, nurse – Tenor

Rose; early 60’s, (looks younger) patient – Soprano

Miriam H.; mid-50’s, (looks younger) patient – Mezzo

Leonard Lev; mid- 40’s, (looks younger) patient – Tenor

Iris; 65-70, Leonard’s mother – Mezzo

Ensemble (12) – (SATB) comprising patients and hospital administrators, staff and the following characters:

Ruth; social worker – Soprano

Lily; Miriam's daughter – Soprano

Dr. Samuel Sacks; Sacks’ father – Bass-baritone

Dr. Muriel Elise Landau; Sacks’ mother – Contralto

Miss Kohl; speech therapist – Soprano

Frank; patient – Tenor

Lucy; patient – Mezzo-soprano

Fiancé; Rose’s fiancé – Tenor


Violet; Miriam’s granddaughter

Leonard; at ten years old


Flute 1

Flute 2/Piccolo

2 Oboes

Clarinet 1 in Bb

Clarinet 2 in Bb/Bass Clarinet

2 Bassoons

4 Horns

2 Trumpets in C

2 Trombones






Project Statement

In composing Awakenings, I was inspired by the exquisite art and stunning imagery of Oliver Sacks' prose, and above all by the lives of the uniquely tragic patients he writes about. His book, "Awakenings", written in the form of a series of case studies and footnotes, suggested the musical structure and characteristics of the score. While not specifically programmatic, I hope that the music may express some understanding of the patients as well as the sense of nostalgia, anger and longing they felt for their stolen past.

Awakenings opens with 12 'frozen' chords of varying volumes - materializing as if dropped into a dark, timeless, "unmusicked" silence. The ensuing music can be heard as an evolution and elaboration of these chords. Like sonic 'statues' they serve as guideposts appearing, reappearing, generating, commenting upon and melding into the ongoing polyphony. Scored for a chamber orchestra of 15 musicians, Awakenings has seven movements, three interludes and numerous fragments and notated silences all played without pause.

Imagining the inner worlds of the newly-awakened was one of the great challenges and joys that Aletta and I experienced in our collaboration. Dr. Sacks describes patients who, when awakened, were sometimes afflicted with often bizarre Tourettes-like tics. One of them, Hester Y, displayed multiple simultaneous but independent tics, which gave the impression of a complex polyphony; Sacks describes her tics as "of many unrelated tempi and melodies proceeding independently having distinctive styles and rhythms or movements-like a clockshop gone mad". Before being treated with L-Dopa, another patient, Miss D. could respond to one stimulus alone. Only music could propel her through space. "As I am unmusicked, I must be remusicked," she said. When “unmusicked” she felt "like a still photo, a frozen frame." When “remusicked” she could "dance out of the frame" and move freely.



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