The stage is almost bare. The scene is a psychiatrist’s office with a chaise longue and a hard chair. Stage right is the entry door and a small writing desk. Through the mullioned windows at the back we obliquely see a string quartet with piano and conductor. Two orderlies like Japanese kurokos keep organizing the set. Throughout the performance they will pick up Ellen’s discarded clothes, administer medication, and sometimes serve as foils for physical action by the principals.
OPERA SARATOGA 2019 SUMMER FESTIVAL Collaborates with Beth Morrison Projects
ELLEN WEST is the true story of a young woman who struggles with severe eating disorders and lack of personal identity in the 1920s. We learn in the program that her struggle, based on notes from her psychiatrist, was memorialized in a poem by Frank Bidart, winner of numerous prestigious prizes including a Pulitzer and the National Book Award. Following the death of his partner, American composer Ricky Ian Gordon found such solace in the poem that he vowed to set it to music. Once he obtained the rights from Bidart, the two artists began to collaborate on the resulting contemporary chamber opera, which was co-commissioned by Opera Saratoga and Beth Morrison Projects.
Contemporary Opera Genre Suits the Tragic Story
ELLEN WEST opens with the rich baritone Keith Phares as Ellen’s doctor, setting the vocal environment for the story of her illness. Though Jennifer Zetlan as Ellen is onstage, she does not participate until she picks up the opening of the poem:
I love sweets,—
would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream ...
But my true self
is thin, all profile
and effortless gestures, the sort of blond
elegant girl whose
body is the image of her soul.
The music is stressed, atonal, sometimes dissonant. It fits the atmosphere of mental illness and unsuccessful treatment. The story sets the tone and Gordon responds with weighty repartee as the baritone doctor tells the story and soprano Ellen opens her soul singing the poem. In this reviewer’s opinion, the lush instrumental score underpins the narrative throughout. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, Musical Director of Chicago Opera Theater (COT), drew the voices and instruments together into a bold statement on the often-futile treatment of eating disorders. Even the angst expressed in a Wagnerian opera that used the same narrative libretto style might not have conveyed the emotion that Yankovskaya wrought in the modern opera genre.
Throughout the 80-minute performance, Ellen continuously doffs and dons identical institutional house dresses, seeming to be symbolic of her weight. At the end, she wears all the dresses, a stuffed symbol of her mental image of herself. No other props are needed. We learn from the program notes that three days after leaving treatment, Ellen West committed suicide.
ELLEN WEST is especially a good pick for those who appreciate contemporary chamber opera.
Ellen West - WORLD PREMIERE (2019)
Music by Ricky Ian Gordon
Libretto by Frank Bidart
Conductor: Lidiya Yankovskaya
Director: Emma Griffin
Scenic Designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume Designer: Kaye Voyce
Lighting Designer: Josh Epstein
Ellen West: Jennifer Zetlan
The Poet / Dr. Ludwig Binswanger: Keith Phares
Friday, July 12 @ 7:30pm
Spa Little Theater
Saratoga Springs NY
Reviewer Ann Boland is committed to Chicago theater. Involved in the audience since the early 80’s, she’s witnessed firsthand the rise of our theater scene, our exceptional local talent, and the vigor of each new generation. Ann handles public relations for authors and works on programs to help seniors with neurological movement disorders. Please visit her website for more information.
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