Friday, June 29, 2012

Don't Forget Your Hat

Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff
On June 24, Long Beach Opera closed their season with a production of Michael Nyman's one-act opera, The Man Who Mistook his Wife For a Hat. Based on Oliver Sacks' book of the same name (follow the links for synpsoses), the piece was produced in the Expo Building - an unassuming space in Bixby Knolls. It was my first LBO experience, so I can't say how it compared to their prior productions in that space, but the Expo Building seemed a good home for a piece of MWMHWFAH's scale.

The staging was straightforward, and, in this age of operas in the round and black-light Wagner, seemed rather conservative. That's not a negative, just an observation; the goal of the production was obviously not to provide the bombastic spectacle of LA Opera's Götterdämerung, but to compliment Nyman's rendition of Sacks' book as a primarily domestic affair.

Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff
The three characters of the piece, Dr. S, Dr. P, and Mrs. P, were portrayed by tenor John Duykers, baritone Robin Buck, and soprano Suzan Hanson respectively. I've been told that Duykers, who is probably best known for his role as Mao Tse-Tung in John Adams' Nixon In China, was actually a part of the original workshop of MWMHWFAH. The piece seemed to sit very well in Duykers' range, as he sounded rock solid throughout.

Baritone Robin Buck gave a strong singing performance as well, shining most brightly when Dr. P broke into Schumann's Ich Grolle Nicht near the midpoint of MWMHWFAH. The invocation of Schumann resonates throughout the piece, and it was clever (though not subtle) of Nyman to make it crystal clear that the Dichterliebe influence was deliberate.

While Nyman handed the baritone some meaty bits to chew, he made soprano Suzan Hanson work a bit harder for it. What was most notable about Hanson's energetic performance was her ability to navigate the larger leaps of Nyman's often angular soprano writing. Though there were plenty of legato melodies to soar on, certain sections of her part sounded intentionally non-idiomatic to portray Mrs. P's somewhat high-strung, defensive nature.

These three formidable singers were backed by the LBO Orchestra, conducted skillfuly by Benjamin Makino. Successfully weathering what sometimes seemed like an endless stream of post-minimal ostinati, the orchestra (which was semi-hidden behind the stage) could be seen occasionally turning pages for each other in a stellar show of teamwork.

Though I have a passing knowledge of Nyman's work as a film composer, I am much more familiar with his work as an author. His Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond is a well-written, well researched springboard into the experimental music tradition of the 20th century. It is curious when a composer so well-versed in experimental music writes music with such surface naïveté.

Photo: Keith Ian Polakoff
Similarly, I haven't read Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, but I have read his Musicophilia, which refers to MWMHWFAH (the book). Musicophilia is quite an informative and enjoyable read, in stark contrast to some other terribly written books about neurology and music.

MWMHWFAH ends an LBO season commendably devoted to twentieth century opera - a brave and unusual feat. Three of the five pieces were written after 1968, which is even more notable. I look forward to their upcoming season, and have some new reading for the interim.

1 comment:

gloomycomrade said...

Very informative review, thank you!