Last month Bright Shiny Things released the world premiere recording of Ricky Ian Gordon and Frank Bidart’s new opera “Ellen West.”
The recording was captured from the Prototype Festival in New York in January 2020, with soprano Jennifer Zetlan and baritone Nathan Gunn, the Aeolus Quartet, double bassist Evan Premo, pianist Djordje Nesic, and conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya.
The new opera offers a portrait of a real-life woman whose body dysmorphia and bulimia were examined by pioneering Swiss psychologist Ludwig Binswanger in one of the twentieth century’s earliest documentation of existential analysis.
Gordon spoke to OperaWire on his inspiration for the opera, his work with Bidart, the new recording, and what he hopes audiences will take away from the opera.
OperaWire: When did you first encounter Frank Bidart’s poem and what fascinated you about an eating disorder? Bidart compares Ellen West to a diva like Maria Callas. Would you say that when you were writing the music to the opera, you were thinking of Callas or an operatic soprano?
Ricky Ian Gordon: There was a period of my life, it was after my lover Jeffrey Grossi died of AIDS on August 1st, 1996, when the depth of my despair was so great I had to leave my life.
Only a pilgrimage would do. All of the old locations and all of my associations had to be shuffled because almost everything made me sick with grief and screamed loss. It was about Jeffrey, but it was clearly, also about losing an entire community, and, in many ways, innocence. We who were in the thick of that time spent our days in hospitals, at memorial services, at jobs which were in service of helping those who were dying, at pride events which had a particular resonance, and trying not to get sick and die ourselves which so many failed at.
I did intake at the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and wrote music for safe sex porno films! So, after a series of foiled departures, where I would think I knew exactly what I had to do and where I had to go, I would arrive and completely fall apart, turn around and go home, I knew I had to go deep inside and come up with another plan. It occurred to me that the place where I sought the most solace, most of my life, was in poetry. My sisters would read me poetry to put me to bed at night when I was little. Poetry was my balm, my lullaby, and my lifeline, so I decided to go and seek out poets.
I ended up in Provincetown because of The Fine Arts Work Center which was started by Stanley Kunitz, because so many poets I loved and admired were teaching and giving readings there. My healing began there. Perhaps it started with my friend Michael Klein, a great poet and memoirist, who steered me towards Mark Doty, Marie Howe, Jean Valentine, Joan Larkin, and Richard McCann, and each of them in turn would steer me towards other writers, like Terri Tempest Williams and Frank Bidart who were all trying to wrap themselves around monumental loss in their writings. When I started reading Frank’s work, I had never read anything like it…I mean, that is not to say that every writer I discover whose work I love isn’t wholly unique, because to be great is to tread the territory of your own truth which is unique already, but his voice grabbed me by the throat. He had a way of dealing with grammar, italics, parentheses, and the way words were arranged on the page which felt like absolute theater to me. “Ellen West,” fascinated me for many reasons.
Yes, I have dealt with an eating disorder for as long as I can remember. I think it is because I grew up in a house full of women, and on Long Island, where being thin was lauded as a higher attribute than being an astro physicist or a brain surgeon. I equated thinness with strength of character and masculinity and would take all kinds of drugs to starve myself and exercise compulsively so I could be lean and mean. I have what has amounted to a complicated lifelong relationship to food and eating which calmed down considerably when I got sober in the late 80s but it is an ongoing conversation in my head at all times. But that is the very surface of Frank’s magnificent poem. If all it were about were eating disorders it wouldn’t have been so resonant and groundbreaking to me or anyone else. No, what Frank achieves, in his meditation and departure from Dr. Binswanger’s study, “The Case of Ellen West,” which inspired the poem, by not only putting Ellen’s story in fluid time, meaning, she is not rooted in one historical time, but all time, universal time, is he gets to the very heart of the ruthless tyrant that lives inside one who strives for an unachievable perfection in a fallible human body and existence…the limitations imposed on the spirit by being enclosed in a body and a gender which each say something to the world about a person which may not in fact, be entirely accurate. Because of this fluid time, Frank can bring in modern culture and excavate whatever he needs to illuminate Ellen’s struggle. “Ellen West” is about the avalanche that happens when the inner being and the outer being are at war with each other.
Of course he brings Maria Callas into the argument…because there will always exist, that conflict when one who is a truly great artist, one who brings great beauty into the world, wants to be as beautiful as their art, as they would fantasize their admirers see them when they are hearing them. Why did Rossini burst into tears after visiting Beethoven the one and only time he met him? Perhaps because here was this man who created such astonishing unparalleled beauty living in such squalor with a full and stinking chamber pot under the piano and rain dripping through the ceiling, and no doubt, looking like an anguished mess, nothing approaching the ravishment of his art. Callas strove to be beautiful but in doing so she eventually dieted her art right out of herself. She choked off her voice in her effort towards physical beauty.
Ellen’s perfectionism destroys her, and the Doctor, and her husband, stand by helpless to affect any change in her. The poet then, in his gigantic sympathies, gives her a voice in his poem she couldn’t have in her life, and brilliantly articulates her inner struggle in a way only a great poet can. Though Ellen was herself a poet, she was confined and constricted by the language and expression of her day, so she couldn’t speak frankly in her poems of what she was truly experiencing. They were overly romantic, convoluted, archaic, and of another time. I believe Frank expresses what she could not express, but might have.
I was hypnotized by “Ellen West.” I would read It to my students knowing that eating disorders were an epidemic in this country, where we worship the external, we seek ourselves outside of ourselves because I knew instinctively and from first-hand experience, that it got to the heart of the matter more than any manual or medical journal could. For me, “Ellen West” was the be-all and end-all when it came to eating disorders and crippling inner perfectionism and unrealistic self-image and fantasy about one’s self and one’s existence that cannot be reconciled.
I held the poem in my deepest cabinet knowing I would eventually set it to music, and by the way, knowing it was an opera, because of the way Frank wrote it, in two distinct voices, like a script, or a libretto. As far as a diva-like soprano singing the role…well, I would say, no. Yes, vocally, but I think the role of “Ellen West,” would collapse with the least bit of melodrama. She has to be completely vulnerable and transparent and truthful, so I wouldn’t RULE OUT. A diva like Callas, but it is all about what she would be willing to access in herself, and reveal. Jennifer was perfect in this way, utterly transparent. “The job of the living is to be seen through.” (Brenda Hillman)
OW: You mention, you yourself suffered from eating disorders. How did this experience influence the way you wrote your character and having something to connect with, how does that shape your music and the text of the opera?
RIG: In setting “Ellen West” to music, I knew, the hardest task before me, was laying the prosody out correctly. If read out loud, the poem is so powerful, and one can enunciate the emphases, the capitalizations, the parentheses, and the asides, with one’s speaking voice. I had to find a way in the music to allow the words to speak as Frank had written them, but also, to SING as he had written them.
Thank God I had spoken this poem out loud so many times to myself, that I felt like the words were mine, a part of me, so that part of it, though difficult, was a pleasure. Then I had to decide what the musical structure of the piece was going to be because I wanted it to feel skeletally sound, not meandering. The structure grew out of the settings of the words because key phrases, such as “I love sweets,” Why am I a girl?” And “I shall defeat nature,” became building blocks…so if the piece were taken apart you would find hundreds of variations on musical motifs derived from lines of text.
Some things Frank made easy for me. I feel the poem has a very clear dramatic trajectory…Ellen struggles to live with this thing that gnaws at her, the pain becomes too great, she sees in her examination of Callas a way out, and when she finally sees and says “the only way to escape the history of styles, is not to have a body,” she privately decides to die. The piece moves into a third act which is very intense, the train ride home, the third day of being home, and the exquisite final letter.
I was so swept up… I would awaken at four in the morning, while I was at Houston Grand Opera with Royce Vavrek working on our Opera “The House Without A Christmas Tree,” and those wee quiet hours when the world was silent and asleep were when the piece came into being. I look back at my thought process for some of it…there is so much I could say, but, for instance, there is a moment when the doctor’s report is rather gruesome, it talks about laxatives and vomiting and diarrhea.
I knew I had to lean into the doctor’s empathy, and not the facts…because for him, the facts were, well, matter of fact, but we know it is heartbreaking for him as he records them, because clearly he cares about her and she has evolved beyond being a mere “case” for him, and so, they are evidence of his impotence in helping her. That is only one example but one that is memorable for me. Then, when I was done setting the entire published poem, and I felt strongly that the piece needed a prologue and an epilogue…because it felt like a classic tragedy to me, Frank kindly obliged to serve up the Prologue and the Epilogue…however, this being 50 years later, the style of these pieces was his later style which incorporates asterisks and pauses that are new and powerful and feel like breaths.
This is where the bell was born…I remembered, when a Tibetan monk came to visit Jeffrey and me right before Jeffrey died, he brought Jeffrey a gift, a pair of Tibetan Bells. They were meant to clear the air. He kept ringing them and it was as if all negative thought and feeling left our apartment as the sound of the bells died out. I decided the asterisks in the Prologue would become like those bells, air clearers…you have thought about that, now think about this…in the way the mind of the poet works.
Also, I want to say something about the orchestration…of course, I knew I was writing a chamber piece, because when I first approached Beth Morrison about producing it, (Lawrence Edelson and Opera Saratoga came on board later) I promised to keep it affordable. I love the range of colors you can get from five strings, the way they talk, both to each other and in dialogue with the text, the variations in attack, technique, and texture. You can get a huge range of emotion out of strings, as well as a huge range period, so the piano can then be used in several ways, including, frequently in this piece, percussion. I love this combination of instruments and feel both excited and comfortable writing for them.
Finally, addressing the eating disorder question, there is one thing in the poem, that resonates with me more than almost anything else… when, in the final letter, before she commits suicide, Ellen writes…
“Dearest.—I remember how
on hikes with friends, when
they rested, sitting down to joke or talk,
around them, afraid to hike ahead alone,
yet afraid to rest
when I was not yet truly thin.”
That is it…it addresses the inability to rest, to breathe, to take in pleasure, because of a punishing inner ideal, relentless in its demands…and is perhaps the strongest and most singular reason I had to set this poem to music.
OW: Tell me about the experience of finally finishing it and what were some of the rewarding parts of working with Bidart on this work?
RIG: As I said, there were really two points in finishing it. One was when I got to the end of the published poem and lived with it for a while. Then I decided I needed a prologue and an epilogue…
First, because it felt like a classical tragedy to me so I wanted a classical frame. Second, because I thought the piece needed some contextualizing for an audience. It really worked out because one of Franks newer poems is called “Writing Ellen West,” which is about the circumstances in which the original poem was created. Frank pirated some of that poem and then added to it, including some phrases from his Pulitzer Prize Award-winning collection, “Half Light,” for instance, the whole “The poem is a veil…” section, which is so lovely and mysterious, and I was very happy with what he gave me.
For the epilogue, he chose one of the poems from “Half Light,” “Hymn,” because as he explains, Frank himself is the “son of the desert,” being born and raised in Bakersfield, California, and Ellen, is the “electric ghost.” I loved the collision of those two images, and I loved that finally, the two voices could come together.
OW: When you finally premiered it, what was the feeling and how does it feel to have the opera now on a recording?
RIG: There is a kind of satisfaction that is hard to convey, but it is when something you have dreamed about writing, and about writing about, is suddenly there…it is done…and you know how much fear and self doubt you had to traverse through in order to birth it, it is an extraordinary feeling.
To see “Ellen West” begin to come to life, and to be in constant communication with a poet I consider to be a hero and a giant, gave me a deep sense of happiness and satisfaction. Also, there is something wonderful and childlike in Frank when he is happy and excited, but also searingly articulate and not childlike at all, that made it really moving when he liked something, and really clear when he didn’t, so I felt the ship was carefully captained and I felt lucky in that way. Frank is a wonderful man and a wonderful collaborator.
There is a poem by Rilke, called “The Lace.” In it, Rilke is surveying an old yellowed piece of lace, beautiful and delicate. He sees it as the relic of a life that was lived…for better or for worse, but of the lace, he says, “Look, this at least got made.” In the end, that’s what it is like, I ran through a thousand gauntlets, dark corridors of self-doubt and lack of faith in myself, and look, “Ellen West,” at least got made.
To be in an audience and feel when an audience is moved by your work, and to see and hear performers demonstrating their involvement with your work by playing and singing so beautifully and with such commitment it takes your breath away, is exactly what keeps you coming back. It is the impetus for writing…as well as the community you create by writing. You are in a room, and there are many people running around all working together to make something astounding, directors, designers, performers, conductors, players, producers, dancers, all because you took the five years or whatever it took, alone in a room, to create this thing out of nothing…and then it is recorded and published, which assures its future life, and you have all the various Ellens and Dr. Binswangers and Franks to look forward to seeing and hearing…this is maybe the greatest part of being a composer.
There is also, great satisfaction in seeing artists take something you have made, and make it their own. Everyone who worked on “Ellen West,” had a vivid imagination and fearless creativity which enabled them to take what Frank and I had done a thousand miles further than we ever could have imagined.
OW: What do you find to be one of the hardest parts of listening to a piece that you have composed as it is being preserved on a recording for history? Do you ever wish you could correct what you wrote or is there ever a feeling you want to go back to that performance?
RIG: Opera and Theater are fluid forms which are rarely declared done until the creators are dead…so yes, there are always things you want to and even look forward to changing, but on the other hand, usually, you are so grateful to have a record of what you worked so hard to make, especially when it is as beautifully sung and played and conducted and recorded and produced and engineered as this one.
Interestingly, with this recording, for me, there are maybe a few stage noises and the amount of space between sections it would have been fun to have more control of (for instance, I would like something more akin to Attacca after “March 30th” into “The Train Ride Yesterday” and more space between the Final letter and the epilogue, but these are stupid little things only I notice.)
But I imagine, over time, and for as long as I am alive, “Ellen West” will continue to evolve with every production and I have never been afraid of revisiting something on the occasion of its remounting or new production because of the elasticity of the form, Theater.
OW: Why was this the perfect moment to release the recording?
RIG: Was it? We are in the midst of a global pandemic, our democracy seems to be disintegrating quickly, racial and sexual inequities abound, and greed and a pernicious poisonous dishonesty and hateful conservatism run amok. Our country is wildly divided. These are not necessarily the best times for ANYTHING to be released…but it was done and ready and now is as good or bad a time as any, and anyway, it is God’s time, not mine.
I for one, have been listening to loads of music during this time for solace as well as for a lifeline…so hopefully, this recording can go into the world and be of service to somebody somewhere, a voice of solace or clarity in the deafening din. The issues addressed in the poem, eating, the arbitrariness of gender, and having to have a body, are not likely to go away any time soon…so here we are “Ellen West,” the recording, is born, at the worst time ever…but maybe the best as well…man plans, God laughs.
OW: Tell me about your collaboration with Jennifer Zetlan and what made her the perfect Ellen West. Was this the diva you imagined and what did she add to your music?
RIG: Jennifer is an incredible artist. First of all, she can sing ANYTHING! Second, she inhabits a text and a character with all her being. She doesn’t make a false move on the stage, she is guided by the truth and consequently both believable and deeply moving. It’s funny, no, I wasn’t writing it for Jennifer simply because I had a picture in my head of what Ellen looked like and it was different than what Jennifer looks like, but a series of events and accidents made it so that Jennifer was suddenly in view, and available, and BECAME “Ellen West,” and believe me, no one was disappointed with the choice.
It was hard for Jen. First of all, she practically starved herself to death, and second…she was at one with Ellen’s fragility and ambivalence, as well as rage and despair. We were protective of her, fearing she might completely unravel, but our fantastic director Emma Griffin, and our conductor, Lidiya Yankovskaya, were so loving and open and created such a safe space, that Jen cracked through her considerable self-doubt and gave what I believe to be an astonishing performance, one for the ages. I will also say, that both Keith Phares in Saratoga, and Nathan Gunn in New York City, were exemplary colleagues…ready and willing to tear themselves open and reveal themselves in the most vulnerable and heartbreaking ways.
I am an adoring fan of both of them and they are my friends and I love them. Frank too, was very moved by how far they ALL took the text and the music to heart. The subtle shifts of character between Frank, the poet, the Doctor, and the silent husband, especially live, are subtle and tricky to pull off, as was, matching Jennifer’s dazzling and virtuosic performance, but they both did it beautifully.
OW: Eating disorders are something that a lot of young people suffer, what kind of message would you like to send with this work and how do you think it can help the conversation?
RIG: That there is help, and anyone with an eating disorder is not alone…and perhaps “Ellen West” will bring them a greater self-understanding so they can prevail and transcend their circumstances in a way that Ellen couldn’t. We know so much more about eating disorders now than we did then. There is less stigma attached, more help, more literature, and even things like medications to treat them, that are greatly advanced from the time Ellen was living in. But it can still be a devastating reality and perhaps just the fact that this opera sheds light on it is a good thing.
OW: What excites you about this recording being widely available?
RIG: Everything. When a work is recorded and available, the chances for its future life are so much better than if it lives simply in the press and in the memory of those who saw it. I hope, but also think, that “Ellen West,” will have a long and busy life because of its performability, and its resonance.
It is not up to me to decide the merit of the music, other than to say, I am happy with the score. Ned Rorem says, “The composer writes the music he wants to hear.” There is truth in this. Sometimes the composer STRIVES to write the music he or she wants to hear and doesn’t, but I am proud of this opera, grateful to have written it, and grateful it is recorded and published, so that “Ellen West,” and whatever sermon she has to preach in having lived her life the way she did, can live on through Frank’s exquisite poem, and my music.
OW: Is there anything else you would like to say about “Ellen West” that you think people should know?
RIG: Why as a matter of fact, yes. There is, beneath everything else in me, an impulse, an impulse born out of deep insecurity about my own intelligence and ability. When I read something like “Ellen West,” which is so beautiful, horrifying, heart-wrenching, mysterious, and brilliantly constructed, there is a part of me that wants to devour it. I suppose it is akin to the desire you feel when you see someone you find so attractive, you literally want to eat and drink them.
In a way, this is quite often, involved in my wanting to set a text to music. It is visceral. It is the closest way I know of devouring something I love. I digest the words. I enter them into my hard drive, where they will live forever. I feel a little bit smarter, a little bit more enriched, and suddenly, I feel a sacred bond with the poet and the poem…I have taken them inside me and have become so intimate with them it is like a marriage.
I whisked “Ellen West” into my arms like a bride, carried her away, and married her forever, to myself, to my music