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This post is part of my 2022 Word Project. You can read what that’s about here.

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Ralph and I saw our second opera of the season today. I had never heard of it, and going by the title it sounded like a comedy. The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.

But it’s opera, which should be clue enough. I don’t think it would be a spoiler to say everyone dies.

Nobody died in this one but that didn’t make it a comedy.

It was based on a true story about a man who had visual agnosia, which means that while he could often describe the individual components of an object, he could not put those components together to form a whole object.

In one scene, his doctor handed him a rose and asked him to identify it. He knew it was red, that it had a long green stem, that it had soft folds, but it wasn’t until he smelled it that he could identify it as a rose.

In another particularly compelling scene, the doctor hands him a glove and the man goes on to describe it in great detail but can’t determine what it is used for. With a whole lot of prompting, the man finally realizes it goes on his hand, at which point he made the connection to a glove.

In addition to his inability to identify objects, he struggled to identify faces. If someone had a prominent feature, like a mole or buck teeth, he could recognize them by that detail. But for everyday faces he had no idea who people were. He couldn’t recognize his mother, his wife, or even himself in a photo.

As for the title of the opera, the man literally grabbed his wife’s hair and tried to put it on because he thought it was his hat.

You’d be forgiven for thinking he was visually impaired, but he was not. He could see just fine. He just had no idea what he was seeing.

After the show, they had a panel for Q&A and there was a neurologist on the panel who shared some really fascinating information about this affliction. Apparently, when you look at an image, the raw data goes to some back part of your brain where it is then relayed to your frontal lobe and processed into something meaningful. For people who have visual agnosia, the connection between those two parts of the brain breaks.

Ok, one last detail before I get to the part that I really want to talk about because this is starting to sound like a book report.

The man was a talented musician and singer and managed to navigate the world through song. He had his dressing song and his eating song and his bathing song, and that was how he knew what to do and which objects to use for what purposes.

While he couldn’t describe the street he lived on, he knew where the creaking gate was, and where the couple who always yelled hung their laundry out to dry. He could find specific gardens by their scent.

If you’re still not convinced this isn’t an eyesight problem, consider that he could identify complex geometric shapes and tell you exactly what they were. He could, for example, tell you that he was looking at a red octagon but be wholly unable to identify it as a stop sign.

It’s worth noting that he was in no other way cognitively impaired. He was intelligent, clear headed, and could play a mean game of mental chess.

And that’s where the clinical part ends and the performances begin. Because this opera was all about the performances.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s a fascinating disorder. Brains are really quite amazing and awful and inexplicable. But I struggled just to write these few details without sounding dull and dispassionate. And in a few days I will forget the name of the disorder. As of now I can’t remember the name of that back part of the brain where the images go and get lost.

But what I won’t forget is the man’s wife. I won’t forget how she tried to defend him, to explain it away by saying that he was always a jokester, to insist there was nothing wrong with him. We call that denial, but if you had seen the look on her face you would have known that she was utterly anguished.

She smiled. She talked. She defended. But she knew. And in the moments when she thought nobody was looking you could see her face just collapse.

What I won’t forget is how she sang to him and led him through his daily tasks with the melodies he counted on to get them done. Or danced with him with a look of adoration in her eyes.

What I won’t forget is how the man similarly responded, with a combination of denial and acceptance. How he would insist he was joking if his wife became upset, and ask the doctor what he should do to “fix” it.

You can’t fix it, by the way.

Like so many brain things, it is what it is and good luck to you.

What I won’t forget is how this man was almost like a child, eagerly looking for approval that he had identified something correctly and proud of himself when he did. And how, sometimes, when the music stopped he stopped with it, lost in a world he didn’t recognize.

What I won’t forget is the performances of these people who took a clinical neurological pathology and turned it into a sea of emotion. The hope and the fear, the optimism and resignation, the loss.

I don’t often find myself at a loss for words but sometimes the words aren’t what you’re going for. I tried to journal about my experience and failed miserably. I said things like “I loved it” and “it was great” which are the kind of things that would go into my book report if I was in fourth grade.

But sometimes things just affect you. You can sit there in a theater knowing full well it’s only a show and yet you watch this man’s wife pacing up and down outside the doctor’s office and you feel what she’s feeling. You see the confused look on the man’s face and you know he’s only acting but… something in your own brain is certain for a moment that this is all happening for real right in front of you. It could be your own husband or father.

By the final line I was holding my breath, and when the lights dimmed, big fat sloppy tears were falling onto the program in my lap.

That’s the difference between watching an opera and watching a performance.

It was a stunning performance.

I don’t often have much faith in humanity. Too much social media and evening news, not enough opera. But once in a while you experience something like this that is so beautiful in its exposure of the human soul, so tragic, and somehow still so inherently hopeful, and your faith is restored a little bit. You listen to these performers talk about it afterwards in all their normalcy and you’re grateful that they brought it to you.

The opera opened with the doctor talking about the disorder and he questioned why we talk about these anomalies in the brain as a deficit rather than a different way of experiencing the world

The man asked him how to fix it. And the doctor admitted he didn’t know how. There is no prescription. The only thing to do, he told the man, was to keep making music.

I’m going to sob into my tea now.

Photo: tonight’s stage, stark in its beauty. The brain in the background doubled as a screen where the man’s mental images were played. It was rather affecting.