Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival Presents ELLEN WEST Review – The Ultimate Angst

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 ELLEN WEST

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.

Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival ELLEN WEST

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.

Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival ELLEN WEST

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



For additional information, please visit the Opera Sarasota website.

Photos courtesy of Opera Saratoga 2019 Summer Festival

Watch this video previewing Picture This Post's OPERAS WE LOVE - roundup.

Ann Boland
Portrait by Paul Sierra

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.  


Click here to read more Picture this Post reviews by Ann Boland.

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