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Michael Nyman

Publisher: Chester Music

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1986)
Text Writer
Christopher Rawlence, based on the case study by Oliver Sacks
Chester Music Ltd
Opera and Music Theatre
Year Composed
1 Hour 10 Minutes
English, German, Russian
Soprano, Tenor, Baritone
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Programme Note
Michael Nyman The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat (1986)

An 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 recognise, 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.


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.


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.

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


The subject of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Dr. P, requires music as a lifeline, cue, clue, cure.

Its treatment in the hands of Sacks, Christopher Rawlence, and Michael Morris invites a music which may exaggerate, suggest, narrate, dislocate, illustrate, allude, connect, schematicize, cite, express, analyse, structure, mechanise, differentiate, identify, compress, distance, abstract, represent, recreate, cross-refer, strip-down, denote, motivate, formalise…

My initial conception of the opera (strictly following Oliver Sacks' structure) was a series of diagnostic events (hat mistaking, rose describing, etc.) each self-contained, independent, yet accumulatively (rather than cumulatively) building an awareness of Dr. P's illness - evidence increasing as musical detail decreases. The case study progresses while standing still.

© Michael Nyman

Preview the score

  • Soloist(s)
    Sarah Leonard, soprano / Emile Belcourt, tenor / Frederick Westcott, baritone / Alexander Balanescu, Jonathan Carney, violins / Kate Musker, viola / Moray Welsh, Anthony Hinnigan, celli / Helen Tunstall, harp / Michael Nyman, piano
A chamber opera with the intriguing, Suess-like title The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was the effective, unusual and major part of the College of Marin's current programme, "Winter Opera 2001"…In Michael Nyman's hour-long chamber opera, based on…Oliver Sacks, a mysterious visual impairment is affecting Dr P's ability to make sense of the things he sees. Dr P cannot recognize ordinary objects, like a flower, a glove, or a photograph. His students' faces seem unfamiliar to him and recently he has tried to shake hands with a parking meter…Nyman created attractive, singable music, and librettist Christopher Rawlence fashioned believable roles for the soprano, tenor and baritone who comprise the cast. The romantic but resolutely minimalist instrumental score for strings and keyboards is essentially background music in support of the voices. Closely shadowing the singers, its sometimes swift or sudden shifts of harmony and texture underline changes of mood and expression in the drama onstage.
Jules Langert, San Francisco Classical Voice,01/01/2001
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