It’s taken 29 years for Michael Nyman’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to enter my music collection.
I first encountered the chamber opera when it was first released in 1988. I read an article about it in Pulse! magazine (of course), and the main branch of the Hawaii Public Library acquired it for its new-fangled CD collection.
There was just one problem — my brother owned the only CD player in the house at the time, and he was loathe to let me use it.
So I listened to the work exactly once (when my brother was out of the house.) I had an inkling at the time it would be a work in which I could take interest, but after I returned the disc to the library, I never followed up.
It would be many years before I learned the source material was an Oliver Sacks book, and it would be longer still till I spotted that original recording at Everyday Music.
I’m glad I waited to listen to the work again.
I’ll be honest — I had no idea to what I was listening back in 1988. I was still a classical music neophyte, and my experience with modern classical music hadn’t yet expanded beyond Kronos Quartet.
I probably would have pretended to find it profound, only to neglect it years later.
But after a thorough college training, I can understand why I had that original inkling nearly three decades ago.
First, it’s a compelling story with a tight focus on its three characters — a renowned music professor, his wife and the doctor diagnosing him. As the doctor moves from one exam to another, the score evolves.
It helps Nyman is a tonal composer. I’m not sure this story would have been serviced well with a thornier score. The chamber instrumentation also suits the mostly internal dialog of the characters.
I remember following along with the libretto and getting engaged with the score. I did the same when I brought the album home again 29 years later.
I’m ambivalent about opera, but The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is one of the few works in the genre I can revisit.