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How Tourette syndrome helps Pensacola Opera tenor create better art

Andrew Morstein portrays Edgardo in Pensacola Opera’s production of “Lucia de Lammermoor.” The tenor has dealt with Tourette syndrome since childhood. As a teen, he became more engaged with the arts as a way of coping with the condition.
Pensacola Opera
Andrew Morstein portrays Edgardo in Pensacola Opera’s production of “Lucia de Lammermoor.” The tenor has dealt with Tourette syndrome since childhood. As a teen, he became more engaged with the arts as a way of coping with the condition.

Andrew Morstein has Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics.

Last August, opera tenor Andrew Morstein sat on the stage at Boston’s Huntington Theater, which had been transformed (through the magic of stagecraft) into a patient room at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx.

Morestein, who was portraying the character of Leonard in Tobias Picker’s opera “Awakenings,” hunched over a typewriter, his fingers curling and his head jerking involuntarily as he struggled to peck out his memoirs.

In the opera, based on the nonfiction book by neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, Leonard is just one of several hundred patients afflicted by “the sleepy sickness,” a mysterious illness that had left them catatonic for decades.

Leonard and his peers enjoy a miraculous recovery after Sacks begins treating them with an experimental medication called L-DOPA. The miracle is short-lived, however, and they quickly begin to deteriorate again.

This was the backdrop for that scene last August, and Morestein unleashed a tormented recitative as Leonard struggled against the reality of his condition.

"I have risen from the ashes of defeat,” he sang, “to the glory of greatness."

As Morestein imitated Leonard’s involuntary movements, something extraordinary happened. Morestein began to lose control of his own body. To the audience, it was imperceptible, but for the tenor, it was a poignant intersection of life and art.

Morstein, who portrays Edgardo in Pensacola Opera’s production of “Lucia de Lammermoor,” suffers from Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder characterized by repetitive, involuntary movements and vocalizations called tics.

The onset of the syndrome typically occurs in childhood, with symptoms ranging from minor vocalizations, like throat clearing, to more noticeable physical movements.

Contrary to popular belief — and pop culture — only a very small minority of those with the condition exhibit “coprolalia,” the clinical term for the involuntary utterance of obscenities. Tourette syndrome complexity and variability mean that each individual's experience with the syndrome is unique.

Morstein’s journey began around age 10. Misdiagnosed initially, he describes that period as one of confusion and struggle.

“My parents and the doctors thought I was maybe bipolar,” he said, “because I had really intense mood swings and I was really sensitive to light and noise and had a lot of excess energy that would often come out in sort of strange ways. … Middle school was tough because kids didn't know what was going on, and I'd be making these noises that were sort of not of my own volition, and it was just difficult for me to focus.”

The situation only got more serious as Morestein approached high school.

“I would say it really hit a nadir when I was a freshman,” he said. “I struggled with anxiety because I was so worried all the time that my Tourette's was gonna embarrass me or that kids would make fun of me … It got to the point where I didn't wanna get out of bed.”

Worried for his well-being, Morestein’s parents pulled him out of school and put him in a day clinic for a month while they sorted out what was happening. That’s when he was properly diagnosed.

It was also during this period that a child psychiatrist suggested Morestein get more engaged with the arts as a way of coping with the condition. From that point forward, Morestein said, “I really dug into music and went the theater route and (started) playing guitar and writing songs. And I learned piano. It really helped when I needed to kind of get excess energy out.”

Morstein's musical journey eventually led him to Northwestern University, and his career, posteducation, blossomed with a variety of roles, including Count Almaviva in "Il Barbiere di Siviglia" and performances in "Thérèse Raquin" and "The Lighthouse." Each role not only showcased his vocal prowess but also his resilience and adaptability as an artist living with Tourette syndrome.

Counterintuitive as it might seem, Morstein said his condition was “complimentary” to his art. He finds a unique solace in performance, where his tics often subside. In fact, his performance in “Awakenings” was the only time he’s ever had an episode while on stage.

"When I'm singing, it just doesn't really happen," he explained.

While Morstein's experience in the opera world might be unique, he is not alone in the broader music industry in navigating Tourette syndrome. The condition has been a part of the lives of several notable musicians, across various genres and eras.

Historical accounts suggest that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, one of the most celebrated composers in classical music, may have had Tourette syndrome and that it might have even influenced his style. Though contemporary diagnoses are impossible, descriptions of his behavior have led some researchers to this postulation, framing his eccentricities and possibly some of his creative genius in a new light.

More recently, artists like Billie Eilish and Lewis Capaldi have openly discussed their experiences with the syndrome. Eilish, known for her unique vocal style and introspective songwriting, has spoken about how performing and focusing on music helps her manage her symptoms. Similarly, Capaldi, with his powerful voice and emotive songs, has shared insights into his life with Tourette syndrome, breaking down stereotypes and bringing visibility to the condition in the modern music scene.

Picker, who composed “Awakenings,” is another example.

The composer, who is friends with Morestein, was also close with Sacks and was even the subject of a chapter in his book "Musicophilia," which explored the therapeutic power of music for individuals with Tourette syndrome.

Picker, like Morstein, found that engaging in musical composition and performance alleviated his symptoms. In “Musicophilia,” Sacks described how Picker's tics disappeared when he was absorbed in his art, showcasing the extraordinary and somewhat mysterious ability of music to channel neurological impulses.

“Perhaps there is something in music that is fundamentally human and fundamentally about being a creature on this earth that perhaps helps us to bypass some of the things that cause tics,” Morestein mused.

In "Lucia di Lammermoor," a tragic opera by Italian composer Gaetano Donizetti, Morstein portrays a much different character than Leonard, but one he also relates to on a personal level.

The renowned opera is based on Sir Walter Scott's historical novel "The Bride of Lammermoor." The story is set in Scotland and revolves around the emotionally fragile Lucia and her doomed love affair with Edgardo, amidst a backdrop of family conflict and political intrigue. The plot – and its tragic climax – epitomizes the archetype of doomed, star-crossed lovers.

Morestein relates to these themes since his own romance almost came to a similarly tragic end.

“About a year and a half ago, I had a major heart surgery to fix a childhood defect,” Morestein said. The surgery happened shortly before his wedding and forced him and his now-wife to postpone their nuptials.

“I thought a lot at that time about what it would be like to not be here,” he said.

When Morstein steps onto the stage, he brings with him not just the memories of roles past but also the depth of his own life experiences – of illness, love, loss, and resilience.

As he sang in that dramatic hospital room scene in Boston: “I have risen from the ashes of defeat to the glory of greatness. There is a too-muchness lately trying to pull me apart, but I shall pull myself back together.”
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T.S. Strickland