Music exposes heart of science

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Opera based on neurologist’s book offers glimpse into human mind

As Mr. and Mrs. P prepare to leave the neuropsychologist’s office, Mr. P reaches toward the coat rack to take his hat, but instead places a firm hand on his wife’s head, yanking it toward his own head — mistaking his wife for a hat. The story of Mr. P’s condition is told in the book “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” by Oliver Sacks and was rewritten as a chamber opera in 1986 by Michael Nyman. The Austin Lyric Opera will be performing the minimalist work this weekend.

Austin Lyric Opera general director Kevin Patterson calls the production a return to pure opera.

“No scenery, sets or costumes to distract the viewers. Instead, the form is ideally suited to the story, forcing the viewer to focus on the sheer drama of the story without a spectacle of distractions,” he said.

With only three vocalists and a handful of instrumentalists, the novelty of this opera lies in the interaction between the small cast, instrumentalists and their proximity to the audience, as well as the true-to-life nature of the nonfiction drama.

The prologue opens with neuroscientist Dr. S slowly moving through the audience while explaining the term “deficit.” He claims that brain science is all about the loss of brain function and shouts a multitude of terms that might explain the condition of the main character. At the beginning of the opera, the condition ailing the main character is unknown.

Music professor Mr. P begins losing his ability to recognize the faces of his students and is forced to listen to their individual voices to identify them. When he and his wife visit the neuropsychologist, Mr. P’s deficit is seen as an inability to perceive and construct faces in the brain, evident as he mistakes his wife for his hat just before they leave the office. But, his diagnosis doesn’t help Mr. P get any closer to being cured.

The drama unfolds almost as a mystery, leaving the viewer to question the causes of Mr. P’s condition. Ultimately, Mrs. P explains to the neuroscientist that her husband is only able to cope with his daily perceptual problems through music, which offers a sensation strong enough to ground him in reality despite his inability to make visual connections.

Unlike the common perception of opera, which often evokes the coloratura vocal style and fat women pining away in Italian, this work is much more modern and, therefore, easier for today’s listeners to follow. All the words are sung in English — with the exception of one scene where a Schumann piece is performed in German — and the bel canto style is kept to a minimum, making this opera more comprehensible than some of its Romantic predecessors.

The minimalist style works exceptionally well in this one-act drama. The small yet ever-oscillating strings underline a constant, complementary morphing of rhythmic and chordal modes that smoothly transition from one emotion to the next. Instrumental repetitions come in short motives pulled through a range of tones, matching onstage moods with seamless shifts between hope and despair. Bright sonorities resonate as Mr. P feels content with himself and slip nearly unnoticed into a minor chordal structure as devastating information about his condition is revealed.

This musical approach by Nyman is performed exceptionally well by the entire cast in an inspiring and intriguing work like nothing you’ve ever seen. “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” will be showing this weekend, and tickets are available through the Austin Lyric Opera box office.

WHAT: “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”
WHERE: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 606 W. 15th St.
WHEN: Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday at 3 p.m.
TICKETS: $25; available online at austinlyricopera.org