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Review: 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat' an opera about identity

Michael Nyman's compelling score, much of which is an inventive deconstruction and reconstruction of a Schumann song, is on display in a Long Beach Opera production.

June 17, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times Music Critic
  • Robin Buck as Dr. P performs in Michael Nyman's "The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat" for Long Beach Opera.
Robin Buck as Dr. P performs in Michael Nyman's "The Man Who Mistook… (Bob Chamberlin, Los Angeles…)

Of the many pieces performed at the overstuffed Ojai Music Festival recently, one song continued to run through my head the following week: a shockingly hard-hitting pop-rock-Minimalist treatment of Schumann's "Ich Grolle Nicht." Saturday night, there it was again, this time courtesy of Long Beach Opera. The song happens to be the centerpiece of Michael Nyman's neurology opera, "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," which is ending the company's 2012 season.

Let Dr. Oliver Sacks explain that one.

This important but neglected 1986 opera takes its impetus from the bestselling neurologist's poignant study of a singer suffering from visual agnosia, making him unable to interpret visual stimuli in the typical fashion. It is a modest houlong chamber opera for three characters — a neurologist named Dr. S, his patient Dr. P, and Dr. P's wife — with a string quintet, harp and piano. Dr. P orients himself not through visuals but through music, and Nyman's compelling score — much of which is an inventive Minimalist deconstruction and reconstruction of Schumann's song — demonstrates how.

The music also demonstrates why. This thus becomes not just a touchingly operatic treatment of a syndrome but an opera about orientation and identity, something ever on our minds these days. The timing of LBO's West Coast premiere of "Hat" may seem a remarkable coincidence, coming eight days after the Ojai performance of Reinbert de Leeuw's reworking of Schumann and Schubert songs as Postmodern cabaret. But when you program works that relate to things that matter, such occurrences are inevitable.

It was through reading Sacks that Nyman rediscovered Schumann, since Sacks had asked his patient to sing "Ich Grolle Nicht" (I Bear No Grudge), which is part of the song cycle "Dichterliebe." The extraordinary lyrics concern a poet who sees in a dream a serpent eating the heart of a lover who has jilted him. "I saw, my love," it ends, "how wretched you are."

This becomes the opera's symbolic question. Is agnosia eating away at Dr. P's essence, or might we not operate in parallel sensory universes? Dr. P is also a painter, and in a late scene in the opera, Dr. S attempts to come to terms with Dr. P's canvases, which become more abstract as the singer's agnosia progresses. Dr. S sees this as a symptom of a neurological condition. Dr. P's wife insists that it is the nature of artistic expression and development.

The opera ends with Dr. S telling Dr. P that the only thing he can prescribe is more music. For once the music stops, so shall the singer with the song.

But what about Nyman bearing a grudge? The 68-year-old British Minimalist has long enjoyed a large popular following. Along with his concert music and his hot Michael Nyman Band, he is a distinctive and exceptional film composer. But for reasons I've never understood, he rankles the music establishment big time. His operas are in the repertory of no major opera company anywhere.

And Nyman still isn't in an American opera house. LBO is presenting "Hat," the first and most modest of Nyman's four operas (others revolve around Goya, Dada and offbeat lovers) at the EXPO Building, a former furniture warehouse that the company experimented with as an unconventional venue last year. The stage is a raised platform in one corner of the space. The audience sits on uncomfortable chairs that appear to have been borrowed from a wedding reception (renting inexpensive folding chairs would have been preferable). But intimacy is on the site's side.

David Schweizer's production (direction and sets) is straightforward, allowing the characters and their sentiments to be honestly and movingly expressed. Two medical assistants are no doubt meant to doll up a bare-bones show. They are not annoying, but neither are they necessary.

The three singers are LBO regulars, and they are all excellent. The veteran tenor, John Duykers, personifies everything that is sympathetic about Dr. S. Baritone Robin Buck is an elegant and musically eloquent Dr. P. Suzan Hanson adds artistic sophistication to the other qualities of his nervously watchful wife.

Benjamin Makino conducts the small ensemble warmly, if without the characteristic Nyman punch. But amplification overly favored the singers and was, I hope, a work in progress Saturday.

This is an opera that needs to be seen and, despite working too much on the cheap, LBO does it justice. But what about all that cheapness? This is a one-act, and a chamber one-act at that, presented in a warehouse with a top ticket price of $150. Some in Saturday's audience, you can be assured, left bearing LBO a grudge.

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