Saturday, August 22, 2015

Indianapolis Opera resumes its production history with "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat"

Opera throws more obstacles into the paths of true identity and genuine love than you can shake a selfie stick at.

Moment of truth: Dr. P. grabs wife's head when it's time to go.
But no obstacle is more bizarre than the degenerative brain disease suffered by the main character in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," Michael Nyman's one-act piece drawn from the title true story by neurologist Oliver Sacks in his best-selling book. It's the story of an accomplished artist, identified only as Dr. P.  He's primarily a singer and voice teacher but also an accomplished painter, suffering from a puzzling, persistent mental tarnish darkening his golden years.

Indianapolis Opera Friday night resumed its interrupted and imperiled course into the 21st century at the Schrott Center for the Arts at Butler University. It was the first of three performances, designed and directed by GLMMR (Giving Light Motion + Memory + Relevance), a performance-art company based in Brooklyn, N.Y. A string ensemble (including piano and harp) from the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra was in the pit; its music director, Matthew Kraemer, conducted.

Nyman invented the term "minimalism," but his style (as pointed out by IO general director Kevin Patterson in a pre-performance talk) is not in the strict, extended style associated with Philip Glass. The repetitive structures tend to be briefer and change more often. In "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,"  this balance — shifting patterns of phrases, mostly consonant, with lots of textural variety — suits the nature of the action well. Dr. P. lives in a cubist world, sliding between planes in which cognition consists of identifying selected markers of objects and people, rather than the whole object or person.

Dissonance in the modern era has so often represented distorted visions of reality that it's almost a shock to realize that you can manipulate conventional tonality and go through the looking-glass just as convincingly. (David Del Tredici demonstrated that at length in his Straussian "Alice" pieces.) The comedy in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" is more saturated with pathos, however.

The relative simplicity of the musical language matches the almost static dramatic momentum of the work. The opera is closely wedded to the growing realization by Dr. S. (representing Sacks) of the dimensions of Dr. P.'s illness.

Treatment, sadly amounting to little more than management, has already been put in place by his wife. She does her best to keep her husband's day orderly so that he can use a childlike song to accompany each activity. If there's conflict in "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," it's mainly focused on Mrs. P., whose resistance to the growing diagnosis becomes fierce when Dr. S refuses to take the fragmentation and incoherence of her husband's recent paintings for artistic development.

Friday's performance was distinguished by consistently fine singing from tenor Brian Joyce (Dr. S.), bass Tony Dillon (Dr. P.), and soprano Emily Pulley (Mrs. P.). In his lower range, Dillon was sometimes covered by the orchestra, but for the most part he and his colleagues projected their voices clearly and expressively over the accompaniment. The acting style of all three was appropriately  understated, almost out of an oratorio bag.

Given that "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat" places what happens almost exclusively in the province of Dr. P.'s mind, a lot of gestural or vocal stress would not have seemed apropos. Clear, well-designed projections, both slide and film, take care of that dimension, externalizing it as the patient struggles to make it cohere.

At the very end, when the couple settles into a motionless embrace after the doctor leaves their apartment, musical symbols — white on black — swirl around them. There could be no better representation of Dr. S.'s final assessment of the case. In Sacks' words from the book: "What I would prescribe, in a case such as yours, is a life which consists entirely of music. Music has been the center, now make it the whole, of your life."

The edge-to-edge tapestry of Nyman's music fulfills that prescription, and this production is conscientious in displaying its rationale and the compassion behind it.

[Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]