In opera, you have your smash hits: Bizet's Carmen, Verdi's La Traviata, Puccini's Madama Butterfly — spectacles whose storylines are filled with lust, love, murder, suicide and all the peaks and valleys of human emotion, exemplified in dramatic, grandiose fashion.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is more a deep cut: an intimate, sparse production void of bloody battles or heartbreaking betrayals. While there's no love triangle in this story, however, it is no less evocative or poignant.
The plotline centers on three individuals: a man who is crippled by his own mind, the woman who loves him, and the doctor who treats him. These are the only three characters in the opera. There is no chorus, no symphony. Just a soprano, a tenor and a bass, a chamber orchestra of seven — and one fascinating story, albeit a less familiar one.
"It is rarely staged, especially in this country," says Nashville Opera general and artistic director John Hoomes, who is overseeing the work's first Nashville production this weekend. "Part of the goal of starting the series here at the Noah Liff Opera Center was to have the chance to do lesser-known and less produced pieces on a smaller scale."
Composer Michael Nyman's The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat draws from Oliver Sacks' nonfiction book of the same name, the case study of an opera singer afflicted with visual agnosia, or the inability to recognize faces and objects.
"If you lose your car keys, that's not a sign that anything is wrong, because everyone loses things," explains Hoomes, who consulted with multiple neurologists to ensure accuracy. "But if you find your car keys and you can't even comprehend what they're for — or even call it a key — then you have a problem. That's the workings, or rather, the non-workings of the brain."
The story follows the lives of the three characters, played here by Matt Treviño, Rebecca Sjöwall and Ryan McPherson, through Nyman's edgily beautiful composition. While Nyman is often associated with minimalism — his best-known works include his score for Jane Campion's The Piano and his many collaborations with The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover director Peter Greenaway — Hoomes says Hat's score draws from many inspirations.
"I read that Michael Nyman was the first person to use the term 'minimalism,' and that he allegedly coined that word, talking about another music composer," Hoomes says. "I don't think he falls in that category so much; he has some of the technique of minimalist composers such as Philip Glass, but he certainly has his own voice."
Nyman himself said that as a young composer looking for his voice, he discovered that he fell somewhere in the spaces between the notes where Mozart finds Jerry Lee Lewis, if you can imagine what that sounds like.
"To be honest, I can hear a little of that in his music," Hoomes says. "It's almost like someone with more of a rock 'n' roll sensibility writing classical music. Like, if Jerry Lee Lewis is playing these fast chords at the top of the piano, you hear a lot of that in Michael Nyman's music — that fast repetition — but you also hear some very beautiful melodies."
Hoomes also says Nyman's music is much more complicated than it sounds, with a lot of meter shifts, time changes and chords in which the note the singer is singing isn't in the chord. But this doesn't mean the music isn't accessible or enjoyable.
"People think of modern opera, and immediately, they're kind of scared," Hoomes says of Hat, which was written and first performed in the mid-'80s. "They think it's going to be hard to listen to, and very dissonant. And this music is not — there [are] some moments in it, of course, for dramatic effect, but the music is really stunningly beautiful."
A particularly interesting part of the case study is that the ailment never affected the man's voice or the memory of the music that he knew, even though he was unable to read music anymore; the lines and words on the page became nonsense. He was able to rebuild order by setting his life to internal music, creating musical songs to help him get dressed, or eat, doing every action in the same order.
Nyman performs a similar feat with his score, using his own music as the vehicle that conveys Sacks' neurological concepts to audiences. One scene sets a neurology exam to music; another features a musical chess game, a fast, rhythmic piece that is difficult to perform but pleasant to the ear, sounding like a normal conversation despite the tricky math behind it.
Unlike the grand passions of classical opera, the work's dichotomies of complicated and simple, cerebral and visceral, may be best experienced in an intimate setting where the audience is close to the action. Hoomes says this is why he wanted to stage the show at the Noah Liff Opera Center, which seats approximately 270 people.
"The front row is six feet from the stage, so you're very close to the singers," he says. "It's very emotionally affecting, to be in such an intimate environment with the performers."
While the plot might sound somewhat clinical, Hoomes stresses that it's really a love story between a man and his wife, who becomes his caregiver when his world becomes foreign to him. It also has moments of humor — as the title suggests — that offset the painful realities of anyone suffering a chronic degenerative disease.
"It is a strange subject for an opera, I admit," Hoomes says, laughing. "There are funny parts about the mistakes this poor man makes. There's one that his wife talks about, where he's getting in an argument with a small child who won't answer him back, and he's actually talking to a parking meter."
But Hoomes insists that "this opera is not tragic. It ends on a very hopeful feeling; it's about how we overcome adversity that is thrust upon us. It's an uplifting, healing show." And as much as he loves staging large-scale, "big Top 10" operas like Carmen, he says he's extremely enthusiastic about introducing Nashville to a fairly under-the-radar work.
"One thing I love about Nashville is that there is interest in different types of pieces," he says. "Nashville is not afraid to see something really different. It's Music City; people write new songs all the time. We aren't afraid of new music."