One of the great perks of participating in New York City’s elite avocational choruses, as I’ve done for a decade, is the likelihood that, sooner or later, you’ll be singing backup for the superb soprano soloist Jennifer Zetlan. I’ve enjoyed the privilege several times at Carnegie Hall, and even on tour at the historic Teatro Solís in Montevideo, Uruguay. Zetlan is the kind of singer—heartfelt and hyper-skilled—that any true opera fan would gladly follow to the ends of the earth.
So I was thrilled to learn that Zetlan will be performing in composer Ricky Ian Gordon’s new chamber opera, Ellen West, premiering at Opera Saratoga’s summer festival, with performance dates of June 30, July 6 and July 12. Having also been in the chorus for two of Gordon’s recent operas, The Grapes Of Wrath (adapted from the famed John Steinbeck novel) and 27 (about the relationship between Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas), I have a good idea of the rich textual/aural treat in store for Saratogians.
In the opera, Zetlan stars as the titular Ellen West, a pseudonym used by Sigmund Freud protégé Dr. Ludwig Binswanger to describe a patient with a particularly challenging case of anorexia, and baritone Keith Phares portrays her physician. West’s tragic story—she poisoned herself at age 33—so captivated Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Frank Bidart, that he was compelled to write a poetic monologue delivered mostly in West’s voice. Bidart’s poem called out to Gordon. “I can’t read ‘Ellen West’ without having my heart broken,” Gordon confides. “I’ve taught in a lot of schools, and so many of these kids have eating disorders.” The idea of adapting the poem percolated for nearly two decades: “It sort of made its way into my subconscious,” says Gordon. “And then, in 2015, I thought, ‘It’s time.’” While overseeing adaptations of his operas across the country and composing several new ones (including adaptations of Lynn Nottage’s play Intimate Apparel for the Metropolitan Opera and Vittorio De Sica’s film The Garden Of The Finzi-Continis for New York City Opera), Gordon found himself motivated to “get up at five in the morning and work on Ellen West.”
For Opera Saratoga Artistic and General Director Lawrence Edelson, Gordon’s opera was love at first listen. In a dual role, Edelson is also founder and producing artistic director of New York’s City’s American Lyric Theater, an operatic incubator dedicated to developing original scores, putting him at the forefront of opera’s new frontier. He promptly co-commissioned the work with fellow impresario Beth Morrison and snagged the world premiere—quite a coup for the forward-looking Opera Saratoga and Edelson, whose mission includes forward-thinking community outreach.
Edelson sees Ellen West not only as an artistic statement, but also one that shines a light on the public health tragedy that is anorexia. “More than 20 million women and 10 million men in the US deal with some sort of eating disorder during their lifetime,” says Edelson. “Ellen West is the first opera to deal directly with these issues. Through this presentation and symposia, talk-backs, in-school programs and meet-the-artist sessions, Opera Saratoga will be able to introduce an important, moving and deeply relevant opera into the repertoire and promote greater public awareness, understanding and compassion toward those suffering from eating disorders, all while exploring how poetry and music can explore the human condition.”
While boldly innovating with productions such as Ellen West, Edelson is also committed to staging a menu of operas catering to all tastes. “My goal is to produce a diverse season that shows the breadth and depth of what opera can be,” he says. “We will always have at least one work from the standard repertoire, family-friendly works to introduce children to opera and, of course, something new.”
This summer’s lineup has something for all opera lovers. In addition to Ellen West, Opera Saratoga will be staging The Daughter Of The Regiment, Gaetano Donizetti’s comedic bel canto crowd-pleaser, directed by Edelson, and Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel And Gretel, featuring shadow puppetry by Chicago’s innovative Manual Cinema company and the voices of the Glens Falls Symphony Children’s Chorus. The festival will conclude with a one-night-only concert presentation of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart And Salieri, complemented by a selection of arias composed by the rivals themselves.
As Ellen West via Frank Bidart muses, in this, the first operatic rendition of his award-winning body of work, “I love sweets—heaven would be dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream.” For Saratogians this summer, heaven will consist of hearing Jennifer Zetlan convey Ellen West’s torment, channeled through what Edelson describes as Gordon’s extraordinary gift for melody. “Ricky,” he raves, “writes music that goes right to the soul.” I can’t wait.