“Hats off” to Austin Lyric Opera

~posted by Sara Hessel, KMFA Music Director

Can a story about a neurological condition be engaging, moving and human? Austin Lyric Opera and the Austin Chamber Music Center proved that it certainly can last weekend when they presented a sold-out run of Michael Nyman’s chamber opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.

The opera is based on a case study by Dr. Oliver Sacks. Dr. P. is a professional singer and music teacher who lately has been making strange mistakes. He asks for directions from a parking meter, thinking it’s a person. He can no longer recognize loved ones or familiar objects. He and his wife visit the neurologist Dr. S. at his clinic, and later Dr. S. visits them at home so that he can observe the patient in his own environment. Dr. S. discovers that Dr. P. cannot process visual information. He can see perfectly well, but his brain can’t make sense of what he sees. Dr. P. uses music to create order in the chaos, and at the end of the opera, Dr. S. prescribes “more music”.

All three members of the cast were marvelous singers and actors: soprano Cara Johnston brought wonderful warmth to her role as Mrs. P., and we felt her fear, rage and powerlessness in the face of her husband’s bizarre ailment right along with her. Tenor Brian Joyce was impressive in his ability to bring forth the mixture of clinical detachment, compassion, and scientific sleuthing necessary for the portrayal of Dr. S.

To my mind and ears, however, bass Matthew Treviño stole the show as Dr. P. His rich voice and embodiment of the character drew me in and didn’t let go.  In final scene, Dr. P. stands alone on stage, humming softly to himself, making sense of the world in his way. The lights dimmed gradually, and one by one, the musicians finished playing and departed, until at last only the piano remained. The music stopped, as it always must, leaving Dr. P in the dark, in every sense of the word. It was a superb moment — moving and chilling.

Pianist Michelle Schumann and her gallant band of players from the Austin Chamber Music Center did Nyman’s music proud with their nuanced performance. After the opera I left St. Martin’s Lutheran Church with Dr. S’s words ringing in my ears (with a small addendum): more music like this!

Sara Hessel is KMFA’s Music Director, as well as producer and host of Ancient Voices. Tune in on Sundays, 9am and 4pm, to enjoy Ancient Voices, right here on KMFA, 89.5.

One thought on ““Hats off” to Austin Lyric Opera

  1. Pingback: In the KMFA studios: Sara Hessel interviews Michael Nyman « Classical 89.5 Blog

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