Prototype Festival 2020 Review: Ellen West
Jennifer Zetlan & Nathan Gunn Take Audiences On Wild, Emotional RideBy Chris Ruel
This past summer, OperaWire published an interview with “Ellen West” headliner Jennifer Zetlan.
When asked what she wanted audiences to take away from her experience with the opera, Zetlan’s replied that, to her, an extremely successful evening of live theater or opera was one in which the audience leaves feeling their soul touched, adding “… I hope our audiences will find themselves deeply moved by Ellen’s story, and by that of her doctor. I hope this can be one experience in their lives that makes them consider their own ‘enough-ness.’”
Zetlan and her co-star, baritone Nathan Gunn, by her own definition, had an extremely successful evening of live opera during the January 17th performance of Ricky Ian Gordon and Frank Bidart’s “Ellen West” at the Gelsey Kirkland Arts Center in New York as part of the 2020 Prototype Festival.
Tension From Beginning to End
It starts with a bell, a dinner bell. With each ring, the lighting shifts, sometimes in hue, sometimes upon whom it shines. The set is the interior of what might be a well-appointed house, or office, complete with an elegant chez lounge upon which a resident or client can recline in comfort. There are two large windows behind which The Aeolus Quartet conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya sets the instrumentalists into a mild pizzicato frenzy.
Baritone Nathan Gunn enters, haggard, bent over, shuffling in sadness with his shoes in hand. He is, at this moment in the opera, the Poet-Frank.
Offstage, yet visible, stands Zetlan as the titular character Ellen West. She sheds her drab tan smock with disturbed and tormented movement. She must free herself from it. It seems to stifle her, to cause her extreme distress and anguish. Meanwhile, psychiatric hospital orderlies go about their business. Gunn opens his lips and begins singing the Prologue whose haunting lines are these: “Whatever lies still uncarried from the abyss within me as I die dies with me.”
These lines, penned by poet Frank Bidart, portend no good omen. Bidart wrote the Prologue specifically for Gordon’s opera, and here we see him, embodied by Gunn, at his desk, composing the words.
With each moment, the tension ratchets tighter, the score punctuated by beats that trigger visual effects, such as lighting. The orderlies aren’t what they seem. They are embodiments of West’s tormented mind. The house/office serves also as the asylum. Minute by minute, Bidart’s poem, “Ellen West,” which served as the libretto, and Ricky Ian Gordon’s tempestuous score transports the audience into the afflicted mind of West, a real woman placed in a Swiss hospital in the 1930s suffering from bulimia; however, back then such a categorization didn’t exist.
For Gordon, perhaps as one of the most influential composers of late-20th, early 21st century operatic and musical theater works, “Ellen West” arose from a dark time in his life.
As he wrote in the program notes, in 1996 he lost his partner to AIDS and desired nothing more than to leave his life, “… escape dailiness, which felt meaningless… Grief felt like an entirely new country, one I had never visited before, or at least not with that velocity. Because I felt as though I were no longer speaking the same language as anyone else, traversing the same soil, I sought the unfamiliar.”
Gordon delved into the world of poetry, discovered Bidart’s “Ellen West,” and it gripped him, shook him, and refused to leave his mind.
In 2015, he set about entering the world of Ellen and her doctor, Ludwig Binswanger, both helpless and tortured by their inability to exorcise the ravenous demon that consumed both doctor and patient. “Ellen West,” in Gordon’s words was an attempt to come to terms with his own “… desire to be more, or different than who I am.” This was Ellen’s struggle. She sought the ideal body, and, sadly, her ideal body was to have no body at all. The smocks she repeated donned and removed was the taking on and the sloughing off of the body she detested.
Zetlan and Gunn Shine In Their Versatility and Vulnerability
It is often said that “good art” should provoke a bit of unease, that the encounter should cause the viewer, the listener, or the reader to squirm somewhat by pushing the boundaries of comfort zones. “Ellen West” does that in spades.
A heavy-hitting poetic work set to music of equal weight is the foundation upon which “Ellen West” is built, but as with any work of opera or musical theater, having the right singing actors in place to bring the story to life is key. Zetlan, an ardent supporter and ambassador for new works originated the role in the summer of 2019 at Opera Saratoga for which she garnered praise, particularly for her attention to the emotional details.
Zetlan gave an outstanding performance of Ellen West, Dr. Binswanger’s pseudonymic patient. In addition to struggling with bulimia, West wrestled with the arbitrariness of birth-assigned gender. She was a case study in the mind-body problem, not knowing how to live in a body with a mind that desperately sought freedom.
Zetlan stated in her June 2019 OperaWire interview that it was easy for her to find a connection with Ellen due to Bidart’s poetry and Gordon’s music, but harder to remain in storyteller mode. She appeared to have reconciled the two aspects of her craft portraying such a complex character.
The emotional details for which she was praised during the Saratoga performances were on rich display. The range of expression and emotion, and the speed at which she could toggle between girlish vivacity, such as when she sings: “I love sweets,—heaven would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream…” to the very next moment expressing that “… only to my husband I’m not simply a ‘case.’ But he is a fool. He married meat, and thought it was a wife,” was startling. There were many of these “Jekyll and Hyde” flashpoints at which she excelled. Besides these split-second emotional shifts, Zetlan needed to use the full range of her voice to navigate the sudden twists and turns.
Regarding being a storyteller, Zetlan told Ellen’s story effectively, and to do so, it was necessary for her to morph fully into Ellen and enter her psyche by establishing a deep inner connection. Zetlan accurately portrayed someone who wanted to jump out her skin, out of her body and the sickening feeling of being hemmed in by a corporeal world. She pushed out into the audience an itchy, claustrophobic vibe that was thick and palpable. That was the key ingredient in bringing the audience along with her as she communicated Ellen’s tormented inner life. Gordon wanted Zetlan in this role, and after seeing her perform, he was spot-on in his selection.
Gunn, not part of the Saratoga cast, brought his Grammy Award-winning, rich voice to the weighty role, or rather, roles since he takes on three: Poet-Frank, Dr. Binswanger, and Ellen’s husband. A lesser artist could easily stumble moving from one to the other, or perhaps worse, not progress at all but remain mired in any of them; Gunn executed the singing and acting required to differentiate each. As the Poet-Frank, the depth of feeling with which he imbued his poetry, and the physical toll it exacted was visceral.
The only scene in which Dr. Binswanger and Ellen interacted with one another was when the two sat in his office. Here, Gunn was silent as he listened to Zetlan’s Ellen recount Maria Callas’ battle with weight and the impact it had upon the iconic singer’s voice. In his Binswanger role, Gunn sang only as he wrote out his notes detailing Ellen’s lack of progress. Gunn did not come across as a cold clinician, but as invested in his patient’s recovery, something which escaped his and Ellen’s grasp.
The final scenes had the baritone portraying the husband. At first he was hopeful upon Ellen’s release from the hospital, but devastation was close at hand and arrives when Ellen commits suicide.
Sharing the stage with Zetlan and Gunn were Marla Phelan and Carlo Antonio Villaneuva. Given the generic names of Woman and Man, Phelan and Villaneuva are gifted dancers cast in dual roles: they are the hospital orderlies and they represent Ellen’s twisting, inner feelings, and distraught mind.
At first, their parts were confusing as they—like Zetlan and Gunn—were called upon to shape-shift in short order. The Man, as an orderly, hands Ellen pills, but as he exits the stage his movements turn spastic, his gait stumbling, and his arms wrap about his chest, slapping his back as he lurches forward.
The Woman would do the same, but perform different actions when manifesting Ellen’s mind-body struggle; she would sniff Ellen’s smocks, tear and devour a bowl full of oranges with animal-like intensity as Ellen recalled seeing an orange drop to the floor during a train ride. Ellen wants to eat the filthy fruit, she stares at it; it calls to her; she desires it. The Woman showed the audience what Ellen would do if she could get her hands on an entire bowl. This scene, as with so many others, was harrowing.
Intense is the best descriptor for Gordon’s opera. I had the privilege of being seated next to Gordon during the performance. Afterward, I said to him that “Ellen West” was a wild emotional ride. “It was,” he replied.
Writing such a haunting piece from a place of personal pain, Gordon’s personal journey through dark times infused “Ellen West” with honest emotion that flowed from his heart. His Note From the Artist in the program was candid about his experience writing the opera: “For however long it took to set, I would wake early, sometimes at 4 a.m., and enter this strange world of Ellen and the Doctor. It was a trance… I needed a deeper understanding of Ellen in me, and the Doctor’s impotence in the face of the severity of her crippling ideal: me, and my ruthless inner tyrant. How often I have nearly destroyed myself…”