Q & A: Soprano Jennifer Zetlan On the Singing the Title Role in Ricky Ian Gordon’s ‘Ellen West’

By Chris Ruel

(Photo: Arielle  Doneson)

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan is a singer known for her enthusiasm for contemporary opera. She has been featured in at least nine premieres of American operas, and created roles in two world premieres, the Messenger in Matthew Aucoin’s “Crossing,” and Fanny in Ricky Ian Gordon’s “Morning Star.”

Alongside Zetlan’s passion for new opera, her vocal agility enables her to explore a wide range of music within the standard repertoire, as well. The soprano has performed Woglinde in Wagner’s “Das Rheingold” and “Götterdämmerung,” Gilda in Verdi’s “Rigoletto,” and Musetta in Puccini’s “La bohéme.”

Most recently, Zetlan finished an Opera Delaware run of Derrick Wang’s “Scalia/Ginsburg” in which she sang the role of U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg. On June 30, Zetlan is set to sing the title role in the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s newest opera, “Ellen West.” Pulitzer Prize winner Frank Bidart’s libretto, explores the true story of an early-20th-century woman suffering from anorexia and bulimia, diving into the emotional, psychological, and physical challenges of her struggle as her doctor attempts to diagnose her. Zetlan, when offered the role, said she was both “thrilled” to be cast as the lead and “daunted” by the emotional weight of the subject matter.

Recently, OperaWire connected with Zetlan to get her thoughts on “Ellen West,” her collaborations with Ricky Ian Gordon, and her wide-ranging repertoire.

OperaWire: How did you land the title role in this production? What was it within you that said: “This is something I want to pursue?”

Jennifer Zetlan: A couple of years before I auditioned for Larry Edelson, Artistic and General Director of Opera Saratoga, Ricky had told me about this new piece he was writing and described it to me, quoting the poem. I wept at hearing him talk about it—it was already clear then that the piece was going to be a very special, resonant one. When I was offered the role, I was really thrilled. A little daunted by the depth of feeling it stirs in me, but thrilled to tackle it.

OW: Tell us a little about the character of Ellen West.

JZ: Ellen West is the pseudonym of a real woman who lived at the turn of the 20th century. She struggled for a large portion of her adult life with various disordered eating issues and lived in a residential sanitarium while under the treatment of Dr. Ludwig Binswanger, who was a pupil of Freud. As an extension of the psychology that led to her disordered eating, Ellen was especially obsessed with the arbitrariness of birth-assigned gender and the notion of how to live in the corporeal world as a person in a body while her mind wanted to be free of that body (“the mind-body problem”).

OW: What draws her to you, and what’s your process for connecting with her to bring the character to life?

JZ: Ellen is such a complex character! One of the biggest themes brought up by the poem/opera is not feeling “enough.” As is probably true for every human, I have certainly grappled with my own “enough-ness”—as a person, as a singer, a mother, wife… Frank Bidart’s poetry and Ricky’s music drew me in so easily that finding a connection with Ellen as a reader was pretty easy. Now, connecting as a storyteller has been a little more challenging— it’s quite easy to get caught up in the weightiness of the feelings stirred as a reader rather than find ways to lead the audience through the piece. But I’ve had some excellent direction along the way (from our fantastic director Emma Griffin) to make sure I stay on the storyteller side; we’ve been finding Ellen’s curiosity, intellect, and feistiness among other things.

OW: What do you want audiences to take away from their experience with Ellen?

JZ: As an audience member, I consider an evening of live theater or opera to be extremely successful if I come away from it feeling my soul was touched in some way. 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.”

OW: You’ve worked with Ricky Ian Gordon before; how has collaborating with him on this production been different?

JZ: I adore working with Ricky and singing his music. In the past, I did a few things that were already written before I came on board, and while Ricky writes really well for the voice, this experience of having the piece truly tailored to fit has been really great. After the first workshop, Ricky called me to ask about adding some more higher range, singing in a particular section. Our working relationship is so great at this point that I know I can trust him to hear what works and what doesn’t and make changes, but also that I can ask for a change here and there if I feel like I need it.

OW: What can you say about Gordon’s music in “Ellen West?” How does it challenge you as an artist? And what makes it exciting?

JZ: I think this is some of Ricky’s most moving, complex music to date. The depth of emotion the poem stirred in Ricky is readily apparent in the music, which is part of what makes it so very special. He has written for nearly the full range of my voice; Ellen is exploring who exactly she is, and in searching for the answers, I am singing high, low, forte, pianissimo, with legato, marcato… it’s all in there, and the turns of thought can be sudden.

OW: Your repertoire is extensive—from standard repertoire to contemporary operas to orchestral works. What drives your exploration of so many different types of performances and musical styles?

JZ: I love to tell stories onstage. I see that as my priority in creating art, and if a story is compelling to me, I’m content to tell it in whatever style it’s been brought to life. I also love interesting music, and for lots of reasons, contemporary music has long been the thing that piques my interest in a really unique way. But, honestly, I’ve been very lucky that the opportunities that have come my way have been interesting ones to me. There’s a chicken-egg type question here about whether we seek out the kind of work we gravitate towards, or whether it actually finds us.

OW: You’re known as a passionate champion of contemporary music. From where does that passion spring?

JZ: I’ve been performing since I was a kid, and I was lucky enough to be a part of a couple of world premiere musicals and children’s operas. I think that planted the seed of a love of pioneering new works. Also, I loved studying the history of opera, and of course I have great reverence for the great operatic works of the past, but the musical language being used today really clicks with me somehow. Lastly, I have this very busy monkey-mind that is always going. But when I sing complex music, it busies enough parts of my brain in harmony that I find the act of incorporating excellent singing, tricky rhythmic counting and/or tonalities shifting, storytelling, and any of the other myriad things a singer must consider to be a totally centering, calming act. I think that probably sounds counter-intuitive, but I liken it to a very calm juggler spinning plates; lots of chaos from the point of view of the onlooker, but lots of unified work happening by the juggler.

OW: Because you often work with living composers, what advice can you give to others—perhaps to those beginning their careers—about composer/singer collaboration?

JZ: To singers, I would say try everything! Of course, you know what your voice does best, but being open to making sounds that are less than your regular perfectly crafted and beautiful, but effectively serving a piece is important. If the composer is working with you, you owe it to both of you to throw all of yourself at the process, and then you both get to see what works. And you might even find new colors in your palette you didn’t know about.

To composers I would say, go to the opera a bunch and listen to lots of singers. Be curious about how voices work; how voices can be categorized and how a specific voice is unique. Ask the singer about their vocal range, but don’t forget tessitura too. Listen to them sing and discover what kind of vocal line suits their voice best.

Everyone remaining confident in their strengths but curious and open, willing to make adjustments to their product or process will make a wonderful collaboration every time.


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