The composer Michael Nyman has several claims to fame, some more persuasive than others. He supposedly coined the (not so helpful) term “minimalist” to describe the repetitive, formulaic music pioneered through the 1960s and 70s by Steve Reich and others. He had a commercially successful relationship with the film-maker Peter Greenaway, writing scores for The Draughtsman’s Contract and Drowning by Numbers. But he also wrote a chamber opera, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which premiered at London’s ICA back in 1986 and returned to the same venue last week for a delayed 30th anniversary staging organised by the City Music Foundation.
In its time, Man/Hat was a curiosity that pulled crowds and made headlines. Based on a book by the neurologist Oliver Sacks, it details the strange but true story of a musician whose perception of the world was so distorted that he confused people with objects, managing the condition by singing his way through daily encounters. Few narratives could be more obviously suited to opera. And though the piece is rarely done now, it’s survived the past three decades in surprisingly good shape.
Nyman’s music can be grating, brutal and banal, but Man/Hat has a more engaging eloquence, especially in the references to Schumann songs that filter through the score. And it was nicely done here in a simple but effective staging by Rosalind Parker that offered at least one striking voice – that of Rafaela Papadakis – and played against abstract projections that were meant to give a sense of mental process under scientific scrutiny, albeit in a makeshift, low-tech way.
It all worked better than the other item on the bill: a 2011 opera by Kate Whitley called Unknown Position that was another musical response to disordered perception. In this case the disorder was a bizarre condition known as objectophilia, which involves falling in love with inanimate things such as the Eiffel Tower (hard to believe, but someone did historically attempt to marry it) or, for the more practicable purposes of Whitley’s opera, a chair.
The challenge in presenting such a subject on a lyric stage is dealing with the audience’s natural tendency to laugh. And laughter there was as Rafaela Papadakis (the cast was much the same as for Man/Hat) squirmed around the chair in question (not too bad a looker, I’d concede) while her abandoned boyfriend jealously took note. The score was messily frenetic and invited no particular emotional response. It also lacked shape as a story, breaking off abruptly at a point that seemed like half-time rather than the end. And yes, it made me laugh as well – though with an awkward feeling that I wasn’t meant to.
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