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The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

by Michael Nyman

Libretto by Oliver Sacks/Christopher Rawlence/Michale Morris

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a HatAn investigation into the world of a man (Dr P) with visual agnosia (or ‘mental blindness’ due to damage of the visual parts of the brain). Such patients ‘see but do not see’. They see colours, lines, boundaries, simple shapes, patterns, movement – but they are unable to recognize, or find sense in, what they see. They cannot recognise people or places or common objects; their visual world is no longer meaningful or familiar, but strange, abstract, chaotic, mystifying. If a world cannot be organised visually, other organizing principles may be found and used. In the case of Dr P, a gifted performer, his exceptional musical ability allows him, in large measure, to return sense to the world by putting it and his actions into music.

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 organize and integrate, to knit or re-knit a shattered world into sense.
I have said this in the case history, but it needs to be shown: 'what can be shown cannot be said.' And how better could it be shown - indeed how else - than by an opera? This was Michael Nyman's brilliant inspiration. One would not have thought, on principle, that such matters of neurology or epistemology could be explored in an opera - but opera turns out to be the perfect medium: the theme seems pre-ordained for the form. Thus, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, in a manner which first appears highly improbable, but then seems to be almost inevitable, turns into a neurological opera - the first such in the history of neurology or opera. (Oliver Sacks)

Composer's note

My first reading of the title text of The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, soon after the book was published in Britain in November 1985, curiously mirrored the way its central character, Dr. P, viewed the world: I scanned it, skipped from page to page, incident to incident, fascinated by the details, but seeing the whole. These details, however, inescapably formed themselves into a new picture: an opera. Compositional challenges and solutions instantly emerged -as much from Sacks' layout of the case study as from its subject. (My initial enthusiasm was not allowed to wane through the normal delays of opera funding and scheduling: the project was immediately accepted for production by Michael Morris at the Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in London, and Channel 4 TV soon became involved with a film version directed by Christopher Rawlence and produced by Debra Hauer for the newly formed ICA TV. Rawlence, Morris and I began a treatment of Sacks' text, and Jock Scott’s designs had a formative influence on the shape of the work. Rawlence’s libretto explored areas only hinted at by Sacks, much to the enrichment of the work and to Dr. Sacks' satisfaction. From conception to first performance in October 1986 was less than a year. What primarily interested me was that Sacks does not describe Dr. P’s neurological problem, but rather takes the reader through his own step-by-step discovery of the patient’s condition: narrative as process, demanding a parallel musical process. The text contains very little dierct portrayal of Dr. P’s daily experience of visual agnosia but instead reveals his affliction through a series of diagnostic tests conducted in two sessions -the first in Dr. Sacks' consulting room, the second at the home of Dr. and Mrs. P. Each test presents a new piece of diagnostic evidence and, in the opera, would be treated as an individual narrative event: each of these self-contained musical events would then be linked together into a large-scale sequential narrative -a number opera with a difference. My first preparatory step had been to carve up the case study into the Greeting Event, Shoe Event, Rose Event, etc., rather like Fluxus Events.

Michael Nyman (1944 -)

As one of Britain's most innovative and celebrated composers, Michael Nyman's work encompasses operas and string quartets, film soundtracks and orchestral concertos. Far more than merely a composer, he's also a performer, conductor, bandleader, pianist, author, musicologist and now a photographer and film-maker. Although he's far too modest to allow the description 'Renaissance Man', his restless creativity and multi-faceted art has made him one of the most fascinating and influential cultural icons of our times.

Nyman has enjoyed a highly successful career as a film composer, the role in which he is probably best known by the general public. His most notable scores number a dozen Peter Greenaway films, including such classics as The Draughtsman's Contract and The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover; Neil Jordan's The End Of The Affair; several Michael Winterbottom features including Wonderland, A Cock And Bull Story, and The Trip; the Hollywood blockbuster Gattaca – and most unforgettably the music for Jane Campion's 1993 film, The Piano, the soundtrack album of which has sold more than three million copies. His operas include The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Letters, Riddles and Writs, Noises, Sounds & Sweet Airs, Facing Goya, Man and Boy: Dada, Love Counts, and Sparkie: Cage and Beyond. He has written six concerti, four string quartets, and many other chamber works, many for his Michael Nyman Band, with and without whom he tours as a performing pianist. Nyman has stated his preference for writing opera to other sorts of music.

Oliver Sacks: The Man Who Mistook his wife for a hat

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales is a 1985 book by neurologist Oliver Sacks describing the case histories of some of his patients.The title of the book comes from the case study of a man with visual agnosia. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat became the basis of an opera of the same name by Michael Nyman, which premiered in 1986. The book comprises 24 essays split into 4 sections which each deal with a particular aspect of brain function such as deficits and excesses in the first two sections (with particular emphasis on the right hemisphere of the brain) while the third and fourth describe phenomenological manifestations with reference to spontaneous reminiscences, altered perceptions, and extraordinary qualities of mind found in retardates. The Book includes amongst other stories:

  • The Lost Mariner," about Jimmie G., who has lost the ability to form new memories due to Korsakoff's syndrome. He can remember nothing of his life since the end of WWII, including events that happened only a few minutes ago. He believes it is still 1945 (in the late 70s and early 80s), and seems to behave as a normal, intelligent young man aside from his inability to remember most of his past and the events of his day-to-day life. He struggles to find meaning, satisfaction, and happiness in the midst of constantly forgetting what he is doing from one moment to the next.
  • "The President's Speech, about a ward of aphasiacs and agnosiacs listening to a speech given by an unnamed actor-president, "the old Charmer," presumably Ronald Reagan. Many in the first group were laughing at the speech, and Sacks claims their laughter to be at the president's facial expressions and tone, which they find "not genuine." One woman in the latter group criticizes the structure of the president's sentences, stating that he "does not speak good prose."
  • "The Disembodied Lady," a unique case of a woman losing her entire sense of proprioception (the sense of the position of parts of the body, relative to other neighbouring parts of the body).
  • "On the Level," another case involving damaged proprioception. Dr. Sacks interviews a patient who has trouble walking upright and discovers that he has lost his innate sense of balance due to Parkinson's-like symptoms that have damaged his inner ears; the patient, comparing his sense of balance to a carpenter's spirit level, suggests the construction of a similar level inside a pair of glasses, which enables him to judge his balance by sight.
  • "The Twins," about autistic savants. Dr. Sacks meets twin brothers who can neither read nor perform multiplication, yet are playing a "game" of finding very large prime numbers. While the twins were able to spontaneously generate these numbers, from six to twenty digits, Sacks had to resort to a book of prime numbers to join in with them. This was used in the film House of Cards starring Tommy Lee Jones. The twins also instantly count 111 dropped matches, simultaneously remarking that 111 is three 37s. This event, with toothpicks in place of matches,was used in the film Rain Man, starring Dustin Hoffman. This story has been questioned by Makoto Yamaguchi, who doubts that a book of large prime numbers could exist as described, and points out that reliable scientific reports only support approximate perception when rapidly counting large numbers of items. Autistic savant Daniel Tammet points out that the twins provided the matchbox and may have counted its contents in advance, noting that he finds the value of 111 to be "particularly beautiful and matchstick-like."
  • "The Dog Beneath the Skin," concerning a 22-year-old medical student, "Stephen D.", who, after a night under the influence of amphetamines, cocaine, and PCP, wakes to find he has a tremendously heightened sense of smell. Many years later, Sacks would reveal that he was, in fact, Stephen D.

Official Site for Oliver Saks

The Open Mind, with Oliver Sacks - 1987 Video


i. Prologue: The Examiner delivers an address concerning his approach to neurology, and introduces the case of Doctor P.

ii. The First Examination: Doctor and Mrs P. arrive at the neurologist's clinic, having been referred by an ophthalmologist. A series of routine neurological tests is carried out, revealing little. As he prepares to depart, P makes several alarming mistakes and the neurologist resolves to see him again.

iii. The House Call: Baffled by his first meeting with P, the neurologist determines to observe his patient in the environment of his own home. The investigation continues as the neurologist engages P in a variety of visual exercises designed to reveal the nature of P's condition: geometric solids / cartoons/ television/ photographs/ rose/ glove/ chess game.

iv. Testing Visual Memory: The neurologist asks P to describe, form one end to the other, the buildings and layout of a local street they both know well.

v. Paintings as Pathology? An Argument: The neurologist discovers that P is a talented amateur painter. Upon examining a portfolio of his paintings, he concludes that P's illness is reflected in these works, which have moved from representational, figurative painting to the purely abstract. This conclusion angers Mrs, P, who is insistent that the change in her husband's painting style is an expression of his artistic development, not of his deepening illness.

vi. The Prescription: As P continues enjoying his tea, Mrs, P explains to the neurologist how her husband manages, through music, to cope with daily life in spite of his perceptual problems.

vii. Epilogue: The neurologist delivers his concluding remarks on the case.