The Rosenhan Experiment

The Rosenhan Experiment

2007, 2013

Tim Benjamin after David Rosenhan
Composer; Director (2013)
Tim Benjamin
Director (2007)
Arne Muus
Designer (2013)
Lara Booth
Music Director (2013)
Ektoras Tartanis

“If sanity and insanity exist, how shall we know them?
The question is neither capricious nor itself insane.”
David L. Rosenhan, On Being Sane In Insane Places, Science, Volume 179, January 1973

The “Rosenhan Experiment” was a famous investigation into the validity of psychiatric diagnosis conducted by David Rosenhan in 1972. It was published in the journal Science in 1973 under the title “On Being Sane In Insane Places”.

Rosenhan’s study consisted of two parts. The first involved the use of healthy associates or “pseudopatients”, who briefly simulated auditory hallucinations in an attempt to gain admission to psychiatric hospitals in the United States. The second involved asking staff at a psychiatric hospital to detect non-existent “fake” patients. In the first case hospital staff failed to detect a single pseudopatient, in the second the staff falsely detected large numbers of genuine patients as impostors. The study is considered an important and influential critique of psychiatric diagnosis.

The study concluded, “It is clear that we cannot distinguish the sane from the insane in psychiatric hospitals”, and also illustrated the dangers of depersonalisation within psychiatric institutions. It recommended the use of community mental health facilities that concentrated on specific problems and behaviours rather than psychiatric labels, and also recommended education to make psychiatric workers more aware of the social psychology of their facilities.

Our opera The Rosenhan Experiment (first produced in 2008, then revived in 2013) takes as a starting point Rosenhan’s famous paper: all the words in our opera are taken directly from the paper, abridged, and split between two characters (performed by one person), Rosenhan and a Patient.

Download the 2013 revival programme (PDF)

“An excellent work, performed convincingly. There was a first-rate sense of ensemble ... and Benjamin used the forces available to full effect … mention should also be made of the brilliant piano writing. A memorable performance, which appealed musically, dramatically and intellectually”
Seen and Heard

Two Characters, One Actor

Perhaps uniquely, The Rosenhan Experiment features two characters Rosenhan and a Patient, performed by just one singer, a counter-tenor. Whenever the performer speaks, he is portraying Rosenhan, and whenever he sings, he is the Patient.

This device clearly split the role into the two characters, but it also allows the single performer to give a convincing portrayal of schizophrenia - the very condition Rosenhan was investigating.

The sense of dual personality is reinforced in the selection of the counter-tenor voice (falsetto sung vs male spoken voice), and in the design of our 2013 production, which split the stage into two distinct areas (corresponding to Rosenhan's study and the Patient's asylum).

From the libretto (Tim Benjamin, after David Rosenhan)
I have records of patients who were beaten by staff for the sin of having initiated verbal contact; for example, one patient was beaten for having approached an attendant and told him, –
– “I like you”.
Tempers were often short. A patient who had not heard a call for medication would be roundly excoriated, and the morning attendants would often wake patients with, –
– “Come on, you mother fuckers, out of bed!”
Abusive behavior terminated quite abruptly when other staff members were known to be coming.
Staff are credible witnesses; patients are not.
Powerlessness was evident everywhere.

“Brilliant musicality, an immense display of technical prowess ... an immensely challenging piece and something I'd like to hear again”
The Gazette & Herald

2013 Production: Complete Performance


  • Robert Ogden
    Robert Ogden

    Rosenhan / A Patient

    Robert Ogden

    Robert Ogden was born in Harrogate (U.K.), read music as a choral scholar at King's College, Cambridge and studied opera at the Royal Northern College of Music and the Netherlands Opera Studio in Amsterdam. He was a finalist in the Elizabeth Harwood Memorial Competition, the Royal Overseas League Competition and the Great Elm Competition and was awarded the prestigious Curtis Gold Medal for Singing. He studies with Michael Chance and Dinah Harris.

    Since his critically-acclaimed debut in the role of KREON in Rolf Liebermann's Medea for Stadttheater Bern, Switzerland in 2001, Robert has performed in major venues all over the world with conductors such as Rinaldo Alessandrini, Richard Hickox, Sir David Willcocks, Owain Arwel Hughes, Nicholas McGegan, Heinz Fricke and Richard Bradshaw, and orchestras including the Washington Opera Orchestra, the Belarus State Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and the Brandenburger Sinfoniker.

2008 Production
John Reid
2013 Production
Luke Coomber
Clemence Hazael-Massieux
Benoît Morel
Alistair Howes
David Johnson
Peter Rogers


Southbank Centre, London
25th May 2008
Corsham Festival, Wiltshire
20th June 2008
John Thaw Theatre, Manchester
28th October 2013