« Revival of The Boatswain's Mate, A Comic Opera | Main | Moby Dick as Physical Theater »

The Opera of Brain Science

UrbanArias has mounted a fine production of British composer Michael Nyman's 1986 chamber opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The Dresser saw this 60-minute performance on October 16, 2016, at the Paul Sprenger Theatre of the Atlas Performing Arts Center. The libretto by Oliver Sacks, Christopher Rawlence and Michael Morris is based on the novella of the same name by Oliver Sacks.

The story deals with the medical investigation of a man who lost his ability recognize what he is seeing but he is able to continue as a singer and a visual artist.

The orchestral music under the energetic baton Robert Wood is in a throbbing minimalist style with occasional touches of folk tunes (sounding like music for an American hoedown) and with the actual quotation and use of songs by Robert Schumann, such as "Ich grolle nicht" and "Dichterliebe." Three singers--Dr. S (tenor Ian McEuen), Dr. P (Bass Baritone Jeffrey Beruan), and Mrs. P (Soprano Emily Pulley)--form the singing cast. Beruan-headshot-1.jpgBeruan's performance stood out as a haunted sound from a man struggling to operate in the world. Occasionally Pulley's words were not clear making it difficult to follow the story but her movement on stage and her keening (as Mrs. P) for her afflicted husband made her performance compelling. Projections by Grant Preisser added ambiance but did not change the fact that this is a static opera with a lot of text.Pulley_PhotoSmall.jpg

The language of Richard Lyons' excerpt from his poem "Meditations with the Music of Clifford Brown" remarkably captures the mood of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Nyman's opera doubles down on the sensation of sound since the main character is a professor of music. Mrs. P, the afflicted professor's wife, expresses her grief in a keening that begins quietly until her "red balloon of the heart" is made known more fully because she carries the memory of what her husband was capable.

(an excerpt)


a man inflates his cheeks, and the sound through the bell
swells embedded sensations not held in check so much
as allowed to prowl just there, unnamed, before going down
with an exalted dip beneath the surface I've grown used to,
a practiced grief ready to inflate the red balloon of the heart.

The skin awakens memory, numinous clouds of fog rising,
the muscles riding swollen with blood and undulating algae.
The past is par of how we step out from it and haven't yet
in each new step. That's why separate memories seem contrived,
dressed up with betrayal, and what I said I was in years gone
is just that, too gone to say, as if the instant could hold anything.

My memory is a rough stretch of sand, sand dollars embedded
above a sandy cache of eggs, but, otherwise, the field of vision
is incorruptible. The wind is high, wound-up with machinations
of blowing a path straight through instead of pockmarking the view
with stories in which someone is trying to take it easy on himself.
The wind is high and nothing flies except an engine's high whine.

by Richard Lyons
from Fleur Carnivore

"Meditations with the Music of Clifford Brown" copyright © 2006 Richard Lyons


Comments (1)

Teri Rife:

I see Gertrude Stein everywhere these days, including in this excerpt of Richard Lyons' poem. I see and feel an association with Stein's "A LONG DRESS." subpoem from 'Tender Buttons' Objects, which I have been closely reconsidering lately.

Thanks for another thoughtful post, Karren.

Post a comment

Use this form to place a comment to a post in the blog. You must include a valid email address for spam protection. Please see our Privacy Policy for details on how your private information is used and protected. Your comment will be posted as soon as it is reviewed by the blog editor.


This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on October 16, 2016 10:07 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Revival of The Boatswain's Mate, A Comic Opera.

The next post in this blog is Moby Dick as Physical Theater.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.