Facing up to the lion

29 July 2010

‘The lion’s face’ is a complex and poetic image. It was possibly first used by John Bayley to describe the appearance of his wife Iris Murdoch as she succumbed to Alzheimer’s Disease, an image of ‘leonine impassivity’. What better title for an opera, written by a poet, that delves into the issues of care, relationships and identity? The Lion’s Face, an opera about the life of an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home, produced by The Opera Group has been touring the UK this summer.

Medical and social dilemmas around personal identity are one of the many aspects of Alzheimer’s disease: this is one of the reasons why we made the project part of The Identity Project’s programme of nationwide events. After a tour of the UK, the final performance of The Lion’s Face is at the Linbury Studio Theatre at the Royal Opera House tonight.

Your humble blogger is no connoisseur of opera, and its Argus Angel Award and reviews in the Daily Telegraph and Guardian speak more eloquently of its quality than I can. I was, however, particularly taken with the white simplicity of the set that represents the world of the care home; and the struggle of the protagonist, Mr D, to retrieve and make sense of a single childhood memory that haunts him was inescapably moving.

One of the fascinating things about The Lion’s Face is that the creative process has been documented throughout, on the production’s website and blog. Librettist Glyn Maxwell, in the production’s first blog post, over a year before the first performance, begins by defending the link between opera and science (“art is worth little if it ignores suffering and less if it evades science: why should art not care?”) and describes how talking to scientists and carers has changed his approach. Composer Elena Langer follows with reflections on adopting a different, more improvisational working method. As the production develops there are reports from rehearsals and more. The Opera Group’s YouTube channel offers an introduction to the piece, and footage of rehearsals.

The Lion’s Face has also been accompanied by off-stage events: discussions and a symposium. This discussion and openness, both on and offline, seems to me to be at least as important as the finished opera itself. We often discuss how science and art can come together with reference only to a finished work: we don’t see the learning process, the false starts, the changes of focus, the development of an idea. For allowing us an insight into this, we owe The Opera Group a great deal.