Maps of the mind: The Lion's Face
How do you write an opera about dementia? Poet Glyn Maxwell on the moving journey that produced The Lion's Face
Tuesday 25 May 2010 21.46 BST
"Three years earlier, I had been asked by the composer Elena Langer to write a libretto for an opera about Alzheimer's. My first thoughts about the disease were mostly wrong. Knowing nothing about the subject, I did what poets do: I tried out some verse-forms – villanelles, pantoums, ghazals. I was falling into the trap of substituting the patterned oddities of poetry for the dire incoherences of dementia, looking for lyricism by default.Read the full article
"The more I learned, the better the poems became. The Institute of Psychiatry in south London's Denmark Hill opened its doors to Elena and me. We talked to scientists and researchers, saw x-rays and brain scans. We met care-givers, psychologists, music and drama therapists. We saw good care homes where we'd still never want to go, and poor care homes that we tried not to think too much about. We were taken to the institute's windowless basement lab. This is where, if the patient has consented, their withered brain ends up, half of it deep-frozen, half of it examined. We watched humankind's underappreciated best friend, the fruit fly, dying a thousand helpful deaths in the hunt for a cure.
"And, of course, we met Alzheimer's patients and the people who love them. It's hard not to believe the latter suffer more. The smile of someone with Alzheimer's is private, inscrutable, while that of his or her spouse and children is frangible, see-through. Some of those we met who had had the diagnosis were at an early enough stage to volunteer to help us."