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By Dr Tom Christie

January 6th, 2015

THE OPERATIC FACULTY OF DEMENTIA: John O’Hara and Karen Hayes’s The Bargee’s Wife

Opera has an unparalleled capacity amongst musical art-forms for channelling raw emotion.  It is an artistic medium whose palette offers a powerful melange of intensity and sensitivity which has captivated audiences for centuries.  From the work of Mozart to Verdi to Rossetti, opera has presented timeless accounts of ill-fated romance and struggles for authority, where comedy and tragedy rub shoulders in ways unmatched by so many other modes of artistic expression.  It seems little surprise, then, given opera’s consummate ability to impart emotional complexity and hard-hitting subject matter, that in recent years the form has been used to explore dementia and its manifold effects upon those who are affected by the condition.

The Bargee’s Wife is an opera which was created in collaboration between composer John O’Hara and poet and librettist Karen Hayes.  Debuting in August 2013 with a gala performance at Gloucester Cathedral, the performance was headlined by popular musical talent Barbara Dickson and featured an admirably nuanced narrative which expended every effort in investigating the far-reaching ramifications of dementia upon memory and self-awareness.  Set during the extreme winter of 1963, the opera takes place on the Sharpness and Severn Canal where a sudden unexpected tragedy sends shockwaves throughout the bargee community.  This misfortune - and the heartbreak that it brings - resonates down through the generations, and is remembered in markedly different ways by a group of witnesses to the event in the present day.  However, as these narrators are each affected by dementia, the details of their testimonies are not always in harmony.

Karen Hayes has specialised in working with people who have dementia, and has written numerous poetic works (including anthologies such as Only Just Orchid, 2007, and The Edges of Everywhere, 2007) which have used as their focus the voices of individuals who encounter difficulty being heard or recognised.  Building upon this extensive professional experience of the subject area, Hayes and composer John O’Hara worked with a number of people in their eighties and nineties - all of whom had been diagnosed with dementia - in order to ascertain their various personal accounts of life working in and around the canal.  Collaborating with the Mindsong charity, they collectively acted to ensure that the voices of people with dementia were respected and accurately documented.  Once this had been achieved, the recollections and feelings of these individuals were painstakingly crafted into the cohesive operatic work which became The Bargee’s Wife.

During the performance, the disparate reminiscences of the canal are articulated using three separate soloists - ‘Then’, ‘Soon’ and ‘Now’.  These characters express different aspects of shared life experiences, while simultaneously reflecting the disparity which exists between nostalgia for the past, uncertainty about the present, and apprehension regarding the future.  Underpinning the opera is the bargee’s wife herself, a figure who is lent an ethereal sense of otherworldliness due to her presence as a memory of bygone times and a manifestation of emotional ambiguity.  In its laudable attempt to delineate the unreliability of personal narrative and the fragmented nature of individual identity, The Bargee’s Wife skilfully recalls the strategies of Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s early modernist short story In a Grove (1922), later adapted to great acclaim by Akira Kurosawa in the form of his cinematic masterpiece Rashōmon (1950).  Events are hazily demarcated, their accuracy dimmed by the passing of time and the shifting of viewpoints which make specific memories impossible to circumscribe with either reliability or precision.  The audience are encouraged to make up their own minds regarding this indefinite account of past events, and are left to draw their conclusions from the complex emotional tapestry of wistfulness and foreboding which is presented to them.

O’Hara and Hayes’s opera is a challenging but rewarding experience, the soloists supported by the musical talents of two separate choruses (one composed of a 160-strong host of adults, the other a demi-chorus of child singers).  The overall effect is as commanding as it is disconcerting, the intentional lack of narrative clarity or chronological lucidity combining to subordinate logical certainty to the unpredictable currents of emotional feeling.  The Bargee’s Wife is a powerful example of the ability of musical performance to articulate mood and sentiment through potent but unconventional methods, heightening emotive awareness while concurrently expressing the fleeting nature of personal experience.  It is, to date, one of the most original operatic compositions to draw upon dementia as its focal subject, and estimable in its respect for the voices of those affected by the condition as well as its determination not to impose a false sense of orderliness upon its intricate network of individual memories and personal pronouncements.