The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland’s highly absorbing coupling of two fascinating chamber operas

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Opera Double Bill: Michael Nyman, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat & Gavin Bryars, Marilyn Forever: Opera students and musicians of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland / William Cole (conductor). Sir Alexander Gibson Opera Studio, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow, 2.11.2022. (MC)

William Searle (Dr, S) in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat © RCS/Robbie McFadzean

Production (both operas):
Stage Direction – Caroline Clegg
Designer – Finlay McLay
Lighting designer – Davy Cunningham

Nyman, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat

Dr. S – William Searle
Dr. P – Ross Cumming
Mrs. P – Marie Cayeux

Some years ago, I recall reading how valuable music colleges and conservatories are for encountering non-standard repertoire. How true that is! Prior to my Glasgow trip the opera double bill at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland piqued my attention. Not living close to a city, it was a rare treat to attend a pair of contemporary operas.

The opening chamber opera The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is a minimalist work in one act written by Michael Nyman in 1986 to a libretto by Christopher Rawlence based on a true neurological case study by Oliver Sacks. The opera concerns one of Dr. Oliver Sachs’s patients Dr. P who is a gifted singer and teacher of music suffering from Visual Agnosia a condition resulting in visual recognition difficulty, being unable to identify people, objects and places with which he is familiar. This is an example of a neurological disorder of the brain demonstrating its capability of adjusting to new conditions.

Rawlence’s libretto follows how Dr. Sachs progressively identifies the root of Dr. P’s symptoms and taking less than an hour the opera didn’t outsay its welcome. Burdened with this rare neurological disorder we saw Dr. P paddling against the tide, adrift in a world from which he cannot escape. At one point Dr. P didn’t recognise his wife and reached out thinking she was a hat. I knew that Gustav Mahler had a psychoanalysis consultation with Sigmund Freud in 1910 and it wasn’t long before I was considering parallels with Dr. Sachs as Freud, Dr. P as Mahler, and Mrs. P as Mahler’s wife Alma.

The cast of a mere three soloists together with the modest sized chamber group creates an unsettling and rather perplexing world of dissonance, dislocation, anxiety and dislocation yet there is a coherence and arresting appeal. In 2019 I reported from the Dialogues des Carmélites at the RNCM, Manchester where baritone Ross Cumming excelled in the role of Le Marquis de la Force. Cummings works hard at his acting and as Dr. P put his heart and soul into this demanding role and it paid dividends, creating a fascinating character able to shroud himself with significant tension.

French soprano Marie Cayeux is gaining substantial opera experience with numerous engagements under her belt. Well suited to the role of Mrs. P., Cayeux is not only a polished singer she is a calm, collected and stylish actress blessed with the talent for making challenges seem easy, especially her troubling concern for the wellbeing of her husband. A pianist too, Cayeux made short work of Mrs. P’s episode at the baby grand piano.

The role of neurologist Dr. Sachs requires narration as well as singing and acting, attributes tenor William Searle passed with flying colours. With his quietly confident manner Searle displays an appealing tone and impressive diction, together with a noticeable concern for the meaning of the text.

Nyman’s chamber orchestration is spare using four strings, a harp and piano and although minimal his scoring never sounds austere and wearily repetitive. With his scoring he astutely works in several of Robert Schumann’s lieder and I did recognise ‘Ich grolle nicht’ from Dichterliebe.

Bryars, Marilyn Forever

Marilyn – Megan Baker
The Men – Ross Cumming
The Tritones – James McIntyre and Ryan Garnham

Next came the production of Gavin Bryars’s one act chamber opera Marilyn Forever that was premiered in 2013. Marilyn Bowering’s libretto is centred on the last night of screen icon Marilyn Monroe’s life with flashbacks to other notable events. The following day after attending Marilyn Forever in the city Gallery of Modern Art I saw an exhibit by Grayson Perry which contained his quotation ‘I want to make something that lives with the eye as a beautiful piece of art, but on closer inspection, a polemic or an ideology will come out of it’. Reading the Grayson Perry quote made me consider how many people, including myself, have a particular view on Marilyn Monroe which is limited to her sensual and head turning body language notably her famous pout and wiggle, and her breathy, sex-kitten performance of the song I Wanna Be Loved by You from the Billy Wilder hit film Some Like It Hot (1959). I admit to knowing virtually nothing of Monroe or should I say Norma Jeane Mortenson, as an individual, as a person, and here Bowering’s libretto to Marilyn Forever in the Schott Music score ‘examines the inner life of Marilyn Monroe, and her intellectual and emotional relationships with death and love.’

Megan Baker (Marilyn) in Marilyn Forever © RCS/Robbie McFadzean

Megan Baker set the pulse racing as Marilyn, adroitly portraying both the blonde bombshell’s public side and the rarely glimpsed vulnerable and damaged private side such as the miscarriages, mental health difficulties, drug abuse and the dangerously mysterious men in her life. Not only was Baker made up as a dead-ringer for Marilyn she had the showy mannerisms off to a tee. Baker’s vocal display was more than acceptable, in a stunning performance that captured the essence of the character. I came away learning how much more there was to Marilyn a multidimensional character much more complex than the side the media promulgates. Almost a week since attending the opera, it still resonates with me.

Ross Cumming gave another wholehearted performance as a number of men in Marilyn’s life such as baseball player Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller. If Cummings was feeling fatigue from playing Dr. P in Nyman’s chamber opera, it barely showed in what was a redoubtable performance. James McIntyre and Ryan Garnham in the secondary roles as The Tritones did all that was required of them.

Bryars has richly scored his chamber opera for a small ensemble of eight players, strings with clarinet/bass clarinet, horn, bassoon and percussion. There is also a forwardly placed trio of tenor saxophone, piano and double bass played pizzicato that gives a pronounced jazz flavour to the score. William Cole conducted keeping the tempi brisk, and his student musicians seemed thoroughly prepared. Standing with his back close to the edge of a raised platform Cole seemed in danger of falling off.

Stage director Caroline Clegg and designer Finlay McLay did a remarkable job with both the Nyman and Bryars operas. This creative team certainly made impressive use of the Opera Studio space that felt warm and colourful with agreeable set and costume design to match the period.

A highly absorbing coupling of two fascinating chamber operas The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat with Marilyn Forever resulted in a student production that I have nothing but praise.

Michael Cookson

Leave a Comment