Humanizing Mental Illness: The High Art of Lowbrow Opera

With Diary of a Madman, Lowbrow Opera Collective vividly portrays mental illness, and society’s scorn for it, in a compelling 45-minute opera. It runs through the weekend at 18th & Union.


At the end of Diary of a Madman, a custodian methodically, almost painfully slowly, sweeps the halls of a hospital. There, she encounters the title character in something of an agitated state. She has to decide whether to intervene, and how.

No physical harm comes to her. But she’s broken by what she’s seen.

The nameless, wordless character (played by Kayla Wilkens) is on stage maybe 90 seconds. But she captures so beautifully the “damned if I do, damned if I don’t” position of trying genuinely to find crisis intervention for someone in a full-blown episode, without bringing on them more harm. It’s a dilemma very front-of-mind living in the city in a pandemic that’s taken a sorry state of mental health and made it much worse for many.

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Dealing smartly with pressing social issues is a hallmark of Lowbrow Opera Collective’s brand of opera. Lowbrow is a group of classically trained opera singers, musicians, and composers, who seek to make opera accessible. They approach that not by simply abridging or diluting existing works, but by starting from scratch and creating, or through reinventing and reinterpreting.

The first and only other time I saw Lowbrow, I raved about the talent and creativity in #adulting, a riotously funny (and incisive) look at the Millennial experience, both cliche and too-real. (See NWT’s review here.)

This is not that. You will not come out of Diary of a Madman rolling with laughter over Craigslist roommates and Avocado a la Easy Cheese. But you will come away with a sense of how opera can speak to us today.

Diary of a Madman stems from a 19th-century Russian short story by Nikolai Gogol, which composer and librettist Humphrey Searle turned into an opera in the 1950s, and which composer and librettist Dana Kaufman turned into a different opera in 2012. Kaufman’s opera is the one Lowbrow took up (Kaufman was also present on opening night), directed by Eliza Woodyard. The story centers on Aksentiy Ivanovich Poprischin, a man with untreated schizophrenia, and his view of the world, his unrequited love for his boss’ daughter, and others’ mistreatment of him as his symptoms grow more obvious to those around him. Kaufman’s opera version is a compact piece, with dramatic music (performed by pianist HyeYeun Kim), and some memorable scenes.

Not everything about the show is successful. It can be difficult to tell what’s actually happening versus that which is only in Poprischin’s head — and while some of that is surely intentional, that makes it harder to find meaning in the other characters, particularly his unrequited love interest. Most of the characters are more props than fully realized. And why do the two dog characters spend so much time on stage?

But the show is really about Poprischin (played by Devorah Detzer), and those are the elements that land strongest. Detzer is excellent as Poprischin, and the character’s fixations and emotions — grandeur, joy, fear, pain, and wild vacillations between them — feel very real. At some points, Detzer’s emotional vocals reminded me of the longing poured out at the more impassioned points of Eugene Onegin (see NWT’s review here); and her expressions and movements as him — from boundless energy to shrinking in the corner — really carry the role.

Detzer is a trans woman — the program notes she began her transition just this year — and I don’t recall having seen another trans opera singer perform. That’s another thing to love about Lowbrow’s approach: go forth and do things that aren’t being done. Make opera on stage more representative, more accessible, more queer. Just because no one else is doing it doesn’t mean it doesn’t work. Here it works wonderfully well.

Detzer’s compelling lead, alongside Wilkens’s phenomenal voice (as the love interest Sahfee), and her striking wordless performance at the end, provide ample reason to spend an hour of your weekend with Lowbrow Opera Collective.

And keep an eye out for things in the future from Lowbrow. They’re a company to watch, and the best of theatre: inventive, skillful, meaningful, and full of surprises. (Next up are MARThA and #adulting2: here we go again, both planned for the first half of 2022.)

Diary of a Madman runs through 11/21 at 18th & Union in the Central District. Tickets are $10-30 (sliding scale for all), available hereAccessibility notes: restroom is gender-neutral, single-stall; theatre can be made wheelchair accessible with a ramp, but the restroom is not — please contact venue ahead of time to ensure smooth access.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of