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July 2012

Things Not Seen
[The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,
Long Beach Opera]

In 1985, neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks published The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat And Other Clinical Tales, essays describing and meditating upon some of the more unusual cases he had encountered over years of inquiring into the enigmas of the mind. The book was a surprising and long-lived success. Composer Michael Nyman immediately obtained rights to the title piece, intending to adapt it as an opera. The resulting work, with a libretto adapted by Nyman and Christopher Rawlence, premiered in 1986.

As performed by Long Beach Opera as the final production of its 2012 season, The Man Who Mistook... is an intricate miniature puzzle box secreting at its heart—further puzzles. It is a piece that appeals, albeit quietly, to the old Aristotelian standbys, pity and fear, and leaves the viewer to wonder at the degree to which The World may exist only in our perceptions of it and in our unspoken agreements on what those perceptions signify.

The libretto sticks closely to Dr. Sacks's original essay, in which he describes his investigation and diagnosis of the case of "Dr. P," an internationally successful singer and respected musical instructor whose behavior has grown progressively more eccentric. It emerges that Dr. P's perception of the exterior world has come unmoored from the visual: he can perceive shapes, forms, even intricate patterns, but no longer processes clearly the broader context of what his eyes see. At the same time, his overall mental faculties remain acute, and he is particularly attuned to information he receives through sound or rhythm: he will not recognize a familiar person who stands still, but the sound of a voice or even the perception of the particular way that person moves will trigger completely "normal" responses. In the end, Dr. Sacks ["Dr. S" in the opera] learns that Dr. and Mrs. P have adapted to his condition by constructing a way of life structured around predictability, order, and the association of recurring events with music ("eating songs, dressing songs"). The only advice Dr. S offers is that Dr. P should make "more music" of his entire life, for without music he fundamentally ceases to be.*

The Man Who Mistook... is compact and distilled in most every way: it runs little more than an hour, involves only three characters (Dr. S, Dr. P and Mrs. P), and is scored for a string quintet, harp and piano. The score is rooted in [so-called] minimalism, relying principally on swirling recursive chord figures in the strings, but also evokes and paraphrases art songs of Robert Schumann, pieces often performed by Dr. P. (At one point, Drs. P and S join together in singing an excerpt from one of the most particularly sorrowful songs from Schumann's Dichterliebe.) The combination of minimalist rigor and Romantic colorations proves powerful, a simulacrum of sorts of the patient's interior lives.

Long Beach Opera has always emphasized engagement with the drama as much as the music in the operas it chooses to stage, and on that score the three LBO-veteran principals here are more or less perfectly cast. Suzan Hanson's Mrs. P ranges through worry, protectiveness, denial, and the quiet assertiveness of a woman willing to change the external world itself if need be, the better to match it to her husband's. As Dr. S, tenor John Duykers combines low-key demeanor with a focused curiosity and fundamental sympathy as he seeks the nature of Dr. P's condition.

At the center of the production's success is baritone Robin Buck as Dr. P, the object of all our inquiries. Buck's Dr. P is a well of uncertainty, from which are drawn unexpected moments of beauty and confidence, as in the Dichterliebe excerpt or when P describes the bucolic riverside scene that he perceives in what is actually a photo of a parched desert. The fine vocal turn is supported by an equally nuanced, fully realized physical performance, centering particularly around the eyes.


Benjamin Makino, who deftly navigated the shoals of 2011's The Difficulty of Crossing a Field, conducts the seven member ensemble with a steady, not pushy, propulsion that eases smoothly in and out of the more overtly expressive sequences. The staging, by director David Schweizer, is straightforward and semi-naturalistic, as Dr. S meets the Ps first in his office and then in their home before pronouncing his diagnostic opinion. The piece offers little in the way of external action, and Schweizer successfully avoids letting it fall in to inertia. 

The Man Who Mistook... is an intimate, precision instrument with which we are reminded that oftentimes our knowledge of ourselves and others is simply the sum of its gaps.


The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is being staged in the EXPO Building, the former furniture store previously used for LBO's 2011 production of Medea. Two performances remain, next Sunday, June 24, at 2:00 and 7:00. [Tickets.]

Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.

The blogger attended this performance as a subscriber, at his own expense.


* In his original essay, Dr. Sacks did not identify a specific medical cause for Dr. P's "visual agnosia." Pathologic examination following Dr. P's death apparently determined the root of his condition to have been an unusual variant of Alzheimer's Disease that affected only the visual centers of the brain, leaving the other faculties unmolested.


Mr. Bischoff's Music Box of Wonders
[Jherek Bischoff, Composed]


Wandering the labyrinth of vitrines that is the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles, the curious traveler eventually comes upon the hall devoted to the microminiatures of Hagop Sandaldjian. Sculptures so small as to fit literally within the eye of a needle, messages inscribed by hand upon a human hair, each work is said to have been constructed micron by micron, particle by tiny particle, taking a year or more to complete.

Although generally accepted as among the most objectively "true" exhibits on view, this being the Museum of Jurassic Technology one is never far from the possibility that Hagop Sandaldjian and his oeuvre are persuasive illusions. Taken at face value, however, a Sandaldjian microminiature is as remarkable for the method of its making as it is as an end result. "Since even a pulse in his fingers could cause an accident," the wall text explains, "Sandaldjian ultimately learned to apply his decisive strokes only between heartbeats."

Jherek Bischoff's method in creating his new song cycle Composed is arguably Sandaldjianian. Recorded music, even music recorded "live," is an artificial construction in every case, and the music on Composed is particularly so. If there were wall text to accompany it, it would explain in hushed and scholarly terms how Bischoff has composed, arranged and orchestrated each piece on ukulele before recording the full orchestral version one instrument at a time on a laptop computer, mostly in the players' living rooms, each musician playing solo again and again until the requisite number of parts had been accumulated.

To listen to Composed is to hear no trace of the artifice of its synthetic gestation. Which is all to the good: although its construction has the hallmarks of a trick or a stunt, it does not sound like a trick or a stunt. It sounds like a collection of smartly eccentric songs with orchestra, as if it had been recorded with all of its players and singers together in the room. The illusion is pervasive and persuasive.

Composed draws from the well of intricate late '60s pop (Van Dyke Parks, early Harry Nilsson) and overlays it with orchestration that is forthrightly cinematic. A brief overture leads to "Eyes," a samba-laden romance co-written and suavely sung by David Byrne, all wrapped in the aura of some grand, lost John Barry 007 score. A similar widescreen elegance shines out from "The Nest"—which could easily pass as an unreleased track from Björk's Homogenic—while an operatic languor drifts through the barcarolle of "Counting" with Carla Bozulich. The non-singing portions of several songs, such as the woozy waltz at the front end of "Your Ghost" or its Weill-infused cousin interrupting "Young and Lovely," suggest Bischoff is comfortably protean, ready to shift himself in and out of perceived genres as it suits him.

Not every song succeeds: despite a fine middle section that evokes Alexander Nevsky as rescored by Philip Glass, the album-ending collaboration with Dawn McCarthy, "Insomnia, Death and the Sea," nearly collapses under its own portentousness. But that is a misstep born of ambition, and so can be forgiven. On the whole, Composed is a winning Little Experiment That Could. 


Composed releases June 5 via Brassland.

Through an email exchange with the composer, I received a list [pdf] of the musicians and singers and the circumstances under which they were recorded. Many living rooms in Seattle were called in to service.

Post title allusion: Lawrence Wechsler's Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder: Pronged Ants, Horned Humans, Mice on Toast, and Other Marvels of Jurassic Technology, which you should read, or reread, as the case may be. This post was based on an unsolicited (but enjoyed) review copy of Composed.