New York — A festival curiously titled ``Serious Fun!'' opened its current season here with the New York premi`ere of Michael Nyman's curiously titled opera ``The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.'' ``Serious Fun!'' is now in its second season and has quickly established itself as a strong uptown edition of the sort of avant-garde presentations that one usually associates with either downtown Manhattan or the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The headline performer is Laurie Anderson (who gives a second presentation of her performance work on Saturday). But the mixture of events continues through Aug. 4, with ``Megadance'' - a program of works by nine choreographer/dancers, two of whom will unveil specially commissioned pieces.
Mr. Nyman's opera is based on a neurological case study by Oliver Sacks from his book of the same title. It is indeed an improbable idea for an operatic experience - the discussion and examination of a man who functioned in the world but did not perceive objects as they appear to most people. Thus, on exiting the neurologist's office after a particularly cheerful visit, he grabs his wife instead of his nearby hat.
But the opera is not really clinical; it just uses the story line to give a tender, affectionate series of character studies of the man, his wife, and the compassionate neurologist.
Nyman, Michael Morris (who directed this production), and Christopher Rawlence created the libretto. We learn that Dr. P. had been an eminent singer before World War II, and has resettled in the States to teach and paint. As the neurologist makes more discoveries, we learn more about Dr. P. and his home life, and his wife, who talks obsessively to cover up her worry and her husband's often embarrassing mistakes.
Eventually, the neurologist comes to see how Dr. and Mrs. P. have made music the connective thread of his life - even to the ditties he hums to himself, which, in fact, serve as reminders about such chores as getting dressed, and eating a meal. When the lights finally dim on this curious case, one feels a tenderness for the couple, and for the neurologist, who has grown fond of him.
Because the plot is observational rather than deeply clinical, one can focus on the human-interest aspects of the story. And Nyman's score also manages to move us from scene to scene with a warmth and energy that make us care for the characters as people rather than as figures in a medical study. Nyman is an unabashed minimalist, but he is an energetic composer as well, so his patterns never outstay their welcome, and the rhythmic propulsiveness is as vital as the melodic interplay.
The performance I saw took place in Alice Tully Hall. Jock Scott's multi-tiered unit set managed to suggest home, office, and music studio, and also accommodated six members of the Concerto Soloists and pianist Nyman, who also conducted. Tenor John Duykers (who also had the role of Chairman Mao in John Adams's ``Nixon in China'') managed the Examiner/Neurologist's high-lying lines skillfully. Marni Nixon showed us the pain behind Mrs. P.'s endless chatter. Mark Westcott's Dr. P., though rather woolly of tone, was nevertheless affecting.
This was indeed serious fun, a perfect opener for what is Lincoln Center's most unorthodox yet refreshing summer arts offering.