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Serious Fun Events To Open With Opera On Vision via Music
Stephen Holden, The New York Times
July 14, 1988

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,'' Michael Nyman's one-hour chamber opera, which opens the second annual Serious Fun festival tonight at Lincoln Center, is a bittersweet mixture of whimsy, intellectuality and pathos that won acclaim in its debut last year at the American Music Festival in Philadelphia.

Tonight's performance - the first of three at Alice Tully Hall - marks the New York premiere of the work by Mr. Nyman, the 44-year-old British composer who has written music for nine movies by Peter Greenaway. The opera is based on a true story from the best-selling book of the same title by Oliver Sacks. It tells of a Dr. P., who suffers from a neurological disorder known as visual agnosia and finds himself unable to distinguish coherent visual images, though he can still recognize colors, lines, patterns and movement.

Composed for three voices and seven instruments (piano, harp, two violins, two cellos and viola) in a style that brings a Minimalist impulse to a Debussian vocabulary, the opera uses clever musical jokes to show how Dr. P., a talented musician, figures out how to rearrange his life around music instead of images.

''After reading a review of the book in London in November of 1985, I bought it as a Christmas present and after reading the title story knew immediately it would make a good text for an opera,'' Mr. Nyman said the other day. ''The music doesn't just try to create an emotional world - its structure conveys the terrible loss of visual structure that Dr. P. undergoes. The mistakes he makes, such as confusing his foot with his shoe, are tragic, but they have their comic side.'' The Artist's Perspective

Dr. P.'s ailment can be seen as a metaphor for an artist's special perspective. That metaphor can also be applied to the programming of Serious Fun, which asks us to see the world differently. One of the goals of the festival is to woo a younger audience to Lincoln Center by bringing downtown multi-arts performances into an official bastion of New York City culture. Last year, that goal succeeded. Lincoln Center marketing surveys discovered that the average age of Serious Fun patrons was 35. That's 20 years younger than the typical member of a Lincoln Center audience.

Success has led to growth. Last year, the festival's 12 events, budgeted at $300,000, sold a respectable 63 percent of the available seats. For this year's festival, budgeted at $375,000, with sponsorship from the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, ticket sales are running substantially ahead of last year. And the number of events has been expanded to 16.

There are several significant changes in this year's lineup, according to Jed Wheeler, a co-director of International Production Associates, the arts management company that puts on the festival. Last year, the festival presented no brand-new work. This year, eight festival events are new commissions. The recipients include Elodie Lauten (music), Ethyl Eichelberger (performance), Geoff Hoyle (dance), David Van Tieghem (percussion), Rhys Chatham (music), Victoria Marks (dance), Charles Moulton (dance), Pat Graney (dance) and Molissa Fenley (dance). The festival is also bringing Ko Nimo, the noted Ghanaian guitarist, folk singer and storyteller, with his group Adadam Agofomma, to New York on July 29 for the first time. He will share a bill with Yomo Toro, the Puerto Rican master of the 10-string mini-guitar called the cuatro. More Artists Per Evening

In response to the results of questionnaires distributed at last year's festival, this year's programming will also present more artists each evening. And several programs have been shaped around concepts with catchy names like ''The Big Squeeze,'' ''Aloft in Space,'' ''All Talk, No Action'' and ''Megadance.''

''The Big Squeeze,'' an instrumental extravaganza a week from Friday, will bring together what is being billed as the most varied collection of accordion players ever assembled in a program that will explore the varied roles of an instrument that the zydeco craze and the movie ''The Big Easy'' have made newly fashionable.

The four pieces included in the program ''Aloft in Space,'' on July 26 and 27, are all oriented toward aerial dance, acrobatics and gymnastic agility. ''All Talk, No Action,'' on Aug. 2, will bring Allen Ginsberg, Paul Krassner, the editor of The Realist, and the outspoken monologuists Karen Finley and Frank Maya to the Alice Tully Hall stage in an evening that is bound to have a politically satirical edge. ''Megadance,'' on Aug. 3 and 4, will showcase nine self-contained pieces - the shortest only 4 1/2 minutes - by bold young choreographers like Mr. Moulton, Ms. Fenley and Mark Dendy.

The biggest name in the festival, and the first to sell out her two performances on July 20 and 30, is the performance artist Laurie Anderson, who is taking time out from making an album that she described the other day as having grown into a ''monster project.'' Songs From the Record

''When I was invited to contribute to Serious Fun, at first I thought I would just talk,'' Ms. Anderson said. ''But since it's so hard to switch gears, I thought I might do some little songs from the record. I've been working with a new electronic filter that turns a single voice into a little doowop group. I also might play a little violin.''

This year for the first time, Alice Tully Hall is itself being transformed into an avant-garde showcase. Decorating the lobby will be 80 framed photographs by Paula Court of downtown stars like Eric Bogosian, Willem Dafoe and Glenn Branca, taken over the last 10 years. And the video artist Tony Oursler has created a video sculpture, ''Constellation Intermission,'' in which 15 video monitors of different size are arranged in the shape of the constellation Gemini.

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