“Opera can be a useful provocation for conversations about mental ‘otherness,'” said opera director Rosalind Parker in the pre-concert discussion. This double bill on 30 November 2017 was linked by the theme of characters who are marked as mentally “other.” Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a one-act chamber opera to a libretto by Christopher Rawlence, adapted from the case study of the same name by Oliver Sacks, appeared with Kate Whitley’s Unknown Position (2011) to a libretto by Emma Hogan and the composer. Whitley, born in 1989, has an increasing reputation as a composer and co-founder of the Multi-Story Orchestra, an ensemble whose home base is a car park in Peckham, south-east London.
This double bill was promoted by City Music Foundation, an organisation that supports outstanding young musicians on the path to a professional career. Much of the specially formed chamber ensemble comprised CMF musicians, and the soprano Raphaela Papadakis is one of their rising stars. Nyman’s opera was premiered at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in 1986, and this performance returned the work to its original venue, incongruously located down the road from Buckingham Palace. Many audience members were present to support CMF, or were attracted by the heavily-trailed theme of the operas.
The evening was promoted as a science-music collaboration and preceded by a panel discussion with a distinguished neurologist who had worked with Oliver Sacks; the librettist of Michael Nyman’s opera; Professor Lauren Stewart (who heads a research team on music, mind and the brain); and the producer of the operas. This oddly omitted both composers, even though Kate Whitley was present at the performance. Science-art collaborations are currently fashionable in academe, but the question of how the two operas might have been influenced by the neurological and scientific issues raised was underplayed.
Whitley’s Unknown Position was performed first. The uniformly excellent musicians occupied one half of the stage of the black-box theatre, the two characters (simply labelled Man and Woman) the other half. The tenor Nathan Vale, a late replacement to the production, joined Raphaela Papadakis in this tale of a woman who finds dealing with humans difficult and is sexually attracted to a chair. We meet the characters at a time of crisis: she is trying to tell the man that their relationship cannot work. Hesitant strings and a stuttering woodblock underlined these moments, but the music burst into lyrical flower when the Woman sang of her attraction to the chair. And thanks to the music, with its halo-like metallic resonances, what might have been seen as comical or a bizarre fetish was genuinely moving.
The Man reappears with a wad of paper, reading out case studies of object sexual fixation, in a jarringly comic moment that fit awkwardly with the sensitive empathy shown for the Woman’s feelings. Unknown Position proved dramatically effective as a short scena and showed Whitley’s strong affinity with vocal writing. Papadakis and Vale, dressed simply in black and with bare feet, were intelligent, detailed actors and strong singers with excellent diction.
Nyman’s opera features three characters: Dr P, a professional singer (bass-baritone Joseph Padfield); his wife (Papadakis); and his neurologist, Dr S (Vale). The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is driven by chugging instrumental lines from a string quintet, piano and harp. Only rarely does the music bring out the emotional world of a character as happened so tellingly in Whitley’s work, and significantly, the heart of the opera featured not Nyman’s music but Dr P singing Schumann’s “Ich grolle nicht,” showing us that his musical ability was undimmed although in other contexts, words failed him. When the singer and his wife vocalised, they moved towards the ensemble, at one with and supported by the music in an otherwise baffling world.
Papadakis was the standout performer of the vocal trio, a compelling stage presence throughout. Vale sang from the score in the Nyman: his portrayal of the neurologist character was dramatically convincing, though he tired towards the end of the performance. Padfield–who I recall seeing in the small role of the Shepherd in Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande this year at Garsington Opera–is a well-schooled bass-baritone, still very young and clearly a talent to watch.
Oliver Sacks wrote in his programme note for Nyman’s opera: “Dr P and his wife both have elements of the heroic, but the real hero in The Hat is surely music–the power of music to organise and integrate, to knit or re-knit a shattered world into sense.” The main message of the evening was not so much that many neurological quirks exist, but that music is a powerful mediator that strengthens and enhances our humanity. And sometimes, music speaks when words fail us. Music might have been underrepresented in the pre-concert discussion, but it had the last word.