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Monday, July 01, 2019

Ellen’s Quest

“I LOVE SWEETS,” are the first words we hear from Ellen West, as sung by soprano Jennifer Zetlan. “Heaven would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream.” The tune is not pretty. She’s dressed in a heavy button-down duster, the colorless drab of the sanitarium she occupies. It’s a powerful moment both in terms of its musical setting and the fact that everyone observing this scene can sympathize in one way or another.

Lidiya Yankovskaya, Keith Phares, and
Jennifer Zetlan | Photo by Gary David Gold
In 1944, 23 years after a former patient committed suicide, a noted Swiss shrink published an account of her case and assigned her the pseudonym “Ellen West.” She was 33 when she poisoned herself. She was obsessed with food, enough so to be initially diagnosed as anorexic, but her obsessions also included unhappiness with her gender and her physical self.

Thirty years later, Frank Bidart fashioned a lengthy narrative poem from the West saga in which the eponymous character is given her own voice even as the story is shifted in time, evidently to the mid-1950s, to allow West to reflect on the career of Maria Callas, who also was troubled by weight issues.

The poem resonated deeply with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, culminating in yesterday’s world-premiere performance of the opera he fashioned from Bidart’s text. Opera Saratoga commissioned and is presenting this premiere in collaboration with Beth Morrison Projects, which sends it to New York City in six months and thereafter on tour throughout the country.

It’s an incisive, shattering piece, a compact journey through a fragmented mindscape. We’re introduced to West by the poet himself, in a prologue newly written by Bidart, very much in keeping with his tendency to grow self-referential in his verse. Baritone Keith Phares begins as the deshabille poet, pulling on his socks as he describes the act of writing the piece as an exorcism, “an exorcism of that thing that wants to leave the earth but does not leave the earth.”

Even as he’s donning the rest of the costume that will define his stately Doctor look, on the other side of the stage Ellen fiercely unbuttons one tunic and replaces it with another. This isn’t clothing (as no doubt intended by designer Kaye Voyce) –  it’s skin, and what Dr. Binswanger so easily wears is a torture to his patient.

A pair of ambiguous attendants also circle the stage. Nicholas Martorano and Penelope Kendros are white-jacketed and lipsticked in black, silent figures facilitating the movement of costumes and foodstuffs with stylized steps, reacting to their environment with the sensory acuteness that seems to be lacking in physician and patient. Soon enough we see the projected otherness they embody for Ellen, the bodies she would like to inhabit but can’t.

Nicholas Martorano, Penelope Kendros, and
Jennifer Zetlan | Photo by Gary David Gold
Gordon’s music is made to order for Bidart’s verse – or is it the other way around? Bidart fills his pages with rhythm, using enjambment and careful punctuation to reinforce the sense of speech. Which becomes singing when the music that’s inherent in words and phrases is teased from them into full-fledged melodic lines. Gordon’s skill lies not only in finding and realizing that music, but also working against it when that’s more effective. The orchestra, of piano and strings, sits upstage of the action on the small stage of Saratoga’s Spa Little Theatre, glimpsed through the two large windows of the examining room that constitutes much of the set. There’s a bleakness about the sound of a string orchestra (Bernard Herrmann exploited that to great effect in his score for “Psycho”), but it can also be heartbreakingly sweet, especially when a violin sounds solo over the rest of the ensemble. Gordon textures the sound of his music effectively, with pizzicato bursts and plangent piano arpeggios coloring some of the more tense moments in the piece.

Color abounds on the set as well. Designer Laura Jellinek provided a palette of white on which Josh Epstein’s lighting plays a succession of pastels as we shift among the sections of the piece. On the page, it’s a wide ellipsis; for the stage, there’s also a chime that one or another character strikes.

Ellen’s ruminations run from sardonic contempt: her husband “is a fool. He married / meat, and thought it was a wife.” – to helpless inquiry: “Why am I a girl? / I ask my doctors, and they tell me they / don’t know, that it is just ‘given.’” – to rage: “I shall defeat ‘Nature.’” And she has stories to tell: Of a couple in a restaurant, feeding one another (to her horror), of her obsession with Callas, of a train ride home in which she’s tortured by a section of orange. Hearing her examine herself in this psychiatrist’s office brought to mind a similar scene in “Trouble in Tahiti,” a reminder that Bernstein was a great influence on Gordon.

Interspersed are the doctor’s clinical assessments, meted out in language shorn of emotion, and set to a similarly dry music. Gordon resists what must have been a temptation to make him a figure of evil, or at the very least opposition. He is humanized by the music given to the words he sings, but his character remains aloof.

This is not an opera of incident. It’s a memory piece in which the singers don’t interact, and don’t sing together until just before the finish, to a newly added text that begins “O Earth, o fecund thou,” yet still reveals them (he’s now the husband) to be at cross-purposes.

This is piece that speaks well beyond the obvious issues with food. “This is I anterior / to name; gender; action; / fashion; / MATTER ITSELF,— ” It most especially is the story of anyone trying to make sense of body type and gender assignment. Touching on Callas’s fraught story underscores the confusing pursuit of sexual identity that underscores the work – indeed, Gordon first conceived the idea after he lost a partner to AIDS in 1996.

It’s not a feel-good piece, but you’ve figured that out by now. It’s an entertaining piece insofar as it draws you in and compels you to ponder the protagonist’s difficult life and early death. Because Gordon has absorbed so many types of song tradition, he’s able to offer here a work that well suits its opera-house setting, but which will effectively resonate wherever people gather to search for themselves. It’s a terrific credit to Opera Saratoga to co-commission the piece and premiere it here. Performances continue at 2 pm July 6 and 7:30 pm July 12; more information here.

Ellen West
Music by Ricky Ian Gordon
Libretto by Frank Bidart
Conducted by Lidiya Yankovskaya
Directed by Emma Griffin
Opera Saratoga, Spa Little Theatre,
Saratoga Springs, NY
30 June 2019

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