Probing Nashville Opera’s ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’

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Nashville Opera patrons will likely come away from The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat with a myriad of conclusions. General and Artistic Director John Hoomes certainly encourages that, but there’s one judgment he hopes those accustomed to downbeat operatic endings will avoid.

“It’s not about tragedy, he says. “It’s about cherishing those you love while you have them.”

Yes, there is loss in the piece Michael Nyman (probably best known for his score for the film The Piano) fashioned with text by Christopher Rawlence from the 1985 case study anthology of the same name by Dr. Oliver Sacks: A neurologist called Dr. S (tenor Ryan MacPherson) tries to diagnose and treat an opera singer and teacher named Dr. P (bass Matthew Treviño) that has lost his ability to recognize or interpret objects he sees – a condition known as visual agnosia – and is often left helpless without the assistance of his protective and caring wife (soprano Rebecca Sjöwall).

10-31-13 HAT PR 09But the opera, which has been rarely performed since its 1986 debut at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, is ultimately about something very beautiful and very positive – the unbreakable bond between Mr. and Mrs. P turns the profound challenges of the disease into an everyday treatise on deep and abiding love. And love, well, what’s a more operatic theme than amore?

“This is a love story,” Hoomes says. “If it was just a clinical study about a neurological disorder it wouldn’t be an opera piece.” He feels love and loss don’t paint the entire picture, though – “I think this piece has a lot of little secrets in it that I think Michael Nyman wants the audience to examine and try to unlock. Or you can take it at the surface as a kind of family drama and not see any of that if you don’t want to.”

Nyman is credited with coining the term minimalism, and there are certainly elements of that recursive style in the score. But dark Romantic music courtesy of Robert Schumann – including a song from Dichterliebe that begins “Ich grolle nicht…und wenn das Herz auch bricht.” (“I’ll not complain…even though my heart may break.”) – is interwoven into this opera, and there are even moments such as a mental chess match between the neurologist and his patient where pop music’ springy step is heard.

10-31-13 HAT PR 17“There is some minimalism, but not so much as a Phillip Glass composition,” Hoomes explains. “Nyman has said…that he found his aesthetic as a composer improvising on the piano playing an aria from Don Giovanni in the style of Jerry Lee Lewis. And you hear that kind of mix in this piece.

“I’m not a musicologist…but Nyman apparently took several Schumann pieces, both vocal and instrumental works, and incorporated bits of them in various permutations throughout this piece. Every now and then you can really hear it. I keep thinking, ‘I bet that’s from Schumann, even though I don’t know exactly which piece that’s from.’”

For the performers the mix of music, themes and neurological terms is daunting. “With Dr. P there’s the challenge of being at the center of this complex piece. With Dr. S the challenge is that he gets the majority of the musical jargon…while going from being an observer to something more,” Hoomes says. “(With Mrs. P the) challenge is that she has some of the hardest music because Nyman writes her part very high in the (soprano) voice, so she has to find a way to manipulate that so that she can get the words out properly which still hitting all the notes. The tessitura (the range within which most notes of a vocal part fall) is very high!”

10-31-13 HAT PR 15Sjöwall certainly agrees: “A lot of her text sits in a part of the voice that, as much as I can try to be clear, unless you’re used to hearing a soprano sing in that part of her voice…you may have difficulty understanding every word.

“With a role like this I guess what’s different from many other roles is that because of where it lies I’ve really had to focus on singing it into my voice. Really getting it to become second nature and a part of me required singing of lot of it (in practice) this past summer…because otherwise I wouldn’t be comfortable. Now I feel I’ve gotten to the point where it’s comfortable, where the muscle memory has been created.”

Sjöwall researched the story thoroughly, looking at the real woman upon whom her character is based in her initial preparations. But with Hoomes’ decision to stage this version of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat in the present, her portrayal has now become less about the historical figure and more about the opera’s libretto, her personal experiences and the working relationship with Treviño forged when Hoomes directed the two in a production of Aida at Arizona Opera.

10-31-13 HAT PR 12“We became friends on that show and have great chemistry, which is so helpful coming into this show given the relationship our characters have,” Sjöwall says. (And Treviño has the added benefit of playing his current role in a 2010 Austin Lyric Opera production – click here for a clip of him singing in that revival).

All three have worked not only with Hoomes but at Nashville Opera before – Sjöwall was in last year’s incredible The Difficulty of Crossing a Field at the Noah Liff Opera Center while Treviño appeared here in 2009’s Tosca and 2011’s La Traviata at Tennessee Performing Arts Center and MacPherson appeared there in 2010’s Rigoletto.

Also back at Nashville Opera is Conductor Dean Williamson, who among other credits here led musicians and singers through the scores of ‘Difficulty’ and The Girl of the Golden West. He leads a seven-piece Nashville Opera Orchestra comprised of Pamela Sixfin (Concertmaster/First Violin), Conni Ellisor (Second Violin), Simona Rusu (Viola), Michael Samis (First Cello), Elizabeth Lara (Second Cello), Mary Alice Hoepfinger (Harp) and Amy Tate Williams (Piano).

10-31-13 HAT PR 11Pam Lisenby’s contemporary costumes accompany Barry Steele’s adroit lighting for a monochromatic set that includes a Masonite floor covered with the reproduction of a 1950s black-and-white neurology chart with labeled brain parts. Steele also provides video and still-image projections to a large scrim that backs the playing space. “I wanted to keep the set somewhat coldly clinical and then impose humanity on it,” Hoomes explains.

While he loves traditional grand opera too, intimate and often off-the-wall offerings like ‘Difficulty’ and Nashville Opera’s newest production are clearly near and dear to Hoomes’ heart. “It’s just real,” he says. “It’s even very conversational in spots. It will surprise people who think all opera is like Carmen. There’s nothing wrong with Carmen, but I cherish the chance to do a piece like this, which is essentially this hybrid of real theatrical drama and contemporary music. I’m so proud of this.”

10-31-13 HAT PR 07Performances of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat will be at 8 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8 and Saturday, Nov. 9 and at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10 at in the Opera Studio on the second floor of the Noah Liff Opera Center in Sylvan Heights (3622 Redmon St.). Tickets are available by calling Nashville Opera at (615) 832-5242, the TPAC Box Office at (615) 782-4040, or online at www.nashvilleopera.org. The opera is sung in English with projected lyrics. Two ticketing levels are available: $35 for Reserved and $50 for Premiere which features cushioned seating courtesy of Music City Tents and Events. There is a 15-minute Opera Insights event with John Hoomes one hour before each show. There will be talkbacks with the cast and crew 20 minutes after each performance. Nashville Opera, in conjunction with neurologist Dr. Jan Brandes, will host Science of the Mind pre-show receptions at 7:15 PM on Friday, November 8 and Saturday, November 9 in the Swensson Patron Room of the Noah Liff Opera Center. Members of the healthcare community, especially those providing neurological and psychological services are invited to enjoy complimentary wine, soft drinks, and hors d’oeuvres before those performances. Hoomes will offer some brief insights into the production during the gathering. Please call Margaret Carpenter at Nashville Opera (615) 832-5242 to make a reservation. Space is limited.

SATURDAY: A REVIEW OF THE PRODUCTION

*Photos by Reed Hummell courtesy Nashville Opera.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for ArtNowNashville.com from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman’s “The People vs Larry Flynt” among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (www.americantheatrecritics.org).