Oliver Sacks’s 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat seems like a curious subject for an opera. Sacks himself said that his first thoughts on attempting an opera adaptation were “It’s mad.” Nonetheless, Michael Nyman proceeded to do exactly that: premiered in 1986, his opera took the title study from Sacks’s book and transformed it into a one-hour, one-act chamber piece. It follows the story of Mr P, a musician who suffered from visual agnosia, meaning that he could recognise details and schemata but failed to comprehend their significance. In one scene he describes a glove as a container with five pouches, unable to place it into its wider context. It is this disjuncture in perception that forms the foundations of the opera, placing questions about human expression at the centre of the work. New Chamber Opera’s production, directed by Michael Burden, provided an intimate and considered rendition of the opera, but one couldn’t help but wonder whether turning this study into an opera was, in fact, as Sacks originally suggested: mad.
Michael Pandya’s musical direction for this production was consistently excellent, with the instrumental ensemble interpreting the score admirably. The vocal ensemble, comprising Timothy Coleman (Dr S), Brian McAlea (Dr P), and Rose Rands (Mrs P) was somewhat more variable, with vocal detail and clarity sometimes being swallowed by the New College Chapel’s resonant acoustic. McAlea’s performance, however, deserves recognition for being stunning throughout, with his solos being clear musical highlights, particularly his rendition of Schumann’s ‘Ich grolle nicht’, which lies at the heart of the opera. Much of Nyman’s score is a reworking and response to this song from Dichterliebe, which Mr P performs when Sacks visits his house, leading the psychiatrist to ponder upon how such an accomplished musician with no other mental impairments can have so little comprehension of the visual stimuli he is faced with.
From these reflections emerges a meta-narrative about music, and what constitutes artistic expression. In one of the most poignant scenes in the opera, Dr S and Mrs P argue about Mr P’s paintings (holding particular resonances with early debates about modernist art); Dr S sees their gradual shift from detailed realism to more abstract expressionism as the external manifestation of psychological illness, whilst Mrs P views them as profound artistic expression. Whilst they argue, Mr P hums in the background, almost infantilised by being robbed of his speech as he lapses into non-linguistic nonsense sounds. The opera opens with Dr S saying that neurological studies focus upon what a patient lacks, to the point where the individual is entirely forgotten within the study. At this moment, Mr P is temporarily lost under Dr S’s analysis of him, his otherwise extraordinary abilities overshadowed by his retreat from some normative forms of communication.
Unfortunately, however, this narrative about artistic expression that neatly ties the operatic ends together emerges fairly late in this short opera. It is preceded by sung lists of neurological terminology that sat somewhat uncomfortably, leading one to wonder how well such medical dialogue translates to the stage. Whilst this was in some ways appropriate for an opera whose protagonist has lost “all sense of drama and narrative”, the lack of musical contrast, particularly concerning characterisation, meant that this was less effective than it might have been. Consequently, the most effective moments were the vocal solos, and when Mrs P calls an end to her argument with Dr S by declaring him a Philistine, bringing about the most dramatic moment in the piece in the form of an extended silence that interrupts Mr P’s babbling.
New Chamber Opera’s sparse and concise staging was effective in creating a sense of intimacy within the vast space of the New College chapel. That the production sold out on both nights shows that there is a considerable demand for opera performances within Oxford, and more could certainly be supported to foster a more experimental operatic scene. While NCO’s performance of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was both enjoyable and, at times, thought-provoking, the musical material seemed to be overshadowed by the brilliance of the original text. It worked well as an uplifting ode to creativity and musical expression, but in doing so lost some of the subtleties in Sacks’s book.
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