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'Awakenings' Opera Premiering In St. Louis Came From Couple's 'Mutual Inspiration'

February 13, 2020 Tobias Picker Aryeh Lev Stollman
Evie Hemphill | St. Louis Public Radio

Composer Tobias Picker has five operas to his credit, with commissions from the LA Opera and the Metropolitan Opera, among others, and serious acclaim. But his sixth opera, which makes its world premiere at the Opera Theatre of St. Louis this June, will have particular personal resonance. The librettist writing the words to go with Picker’s music is his husband, Dr. Aryeh Lev Stollman.

And while Stollman has written three novels, this is his first time writing an opera libretto. Still, he brings a particular expertise to the show, which is an adaptation of Dr. Oliver Sacks’ nonfiction medical drama “Awakenings.” Like Sacks, Stollman is a physician who studies the nervous system (Stollman is a neuroradiologist, Sacks a neurologist).   

“Over the years, I’ve listened to Tobias work on the other operas. I felt that this was one opera where I was very drawn to the story,” Stollman explained Thursday on St. Louis on the Air. “I felt this was one opera I could contribute to.”

“With this subject, it just seemed like this was the moment, that it was in a way destined,” Picker added. Of Sacks, he said, “He always hoped that I could make this into an opera. … He’d be very pleased, I think, by what Aryeh has done with his work and the beauty of the prose he’s captured.”

On the show, the married couple explained their unique collaboration. Normally, Picker explained, a librettist will write the whole show and then he begins on the score. But this was different. Once Stollman wrote the first scene, Picker set to work right away. 

“He stayed one step ahead of me,” Picker said. “I had never done it that way.”

“But it worked,” Stollman added.

The two also offered a sneak peek at their work, sharing two selections from the workshop version of “Awakenings,” performed in Cincinnati last November. And they explained the easy rhythm they fell into at home as they put the show together — and put it together quickly.

“Since we’re in the same place, it’s very easy to say, ‘Can you come in for a minute and look at this here?’” Picker explained. “‘Do we need a comma here? Is there another word for that?’” 

“In a strange way, or in a wonderful way, there was sort of a mutual inspiration,” said Stollman. “When I heard the music after the first scene, it was so beautiful, it inspired me to keep going in a much more rapid way than I usually have as a writer.”

Related Event

What: “Awakenings” World Premiere

When: 7 p.m. Sunday, June 7, 2020

Where: Opera Theatre of St. Louis (130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves, MO 63119)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill, Lara Hamdan and Joshua Phelps. The engineer is Aaron Doerr, and production assistance is provided by Charlie McDonald.

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Sarah Fenske served as host of St. Louis on the Air from July 2019 until June 2022. Before that, she spent twenty years in newspapers, working as a reporter, columnist and editor in Cleveland, Houston, Phoenix, Los Angeles and St. Louis.