Opera Focuses On Eating Disorders And Body Image

Keith Phares, from left, Jennifer Zetlan, and Nicholas Martorano in Ricky Ian Gordon’s ‘Ellen West’ at Opera Saratoga. (Photos by Gary David Gould)
By Leslie Kandell

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Tuberculosis, murder, and madness cause the demise of popular opera heroines. Eating disorders don’t normally make the cut. But Ricky Ian Gordon aims to add anorexia, and maybe gender identity, to the list with his Ellen West, having its premiere at Opera Saratoga. The 80-minute opera, a co-commission with Beth Morrison Projects directed by Emma Griffin, runs without intermission in the 500-seat Spa Little Theater, completed in 1935.

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan sings the title role in ‘Ellen West.’

Ellen West, a pseudonym invented by her psychiatrist, entered a private sanatorium in Switzerland in 1921. It’s not that she didn’t eat or enjoy food. “Heaven,” she wrote, “is dying on a bed of vanilla ice cream.” But what followed was 60 or 70 laxatives, “tortured vomiting, and violent diarrhea,” which landed her in the care of Dr. Ludwig Binswanger, who chronicled her treatment.

Binswanger discharged Ellen after two and a half months, declaring her untreatable. But he was more helpful than he knew: without him, she poisoned herself three days later, at age 33. Ellen kept a journal and wrote letters – her final one to a fellow patient. These, along with the doctor’s notes, are the subject of a lengthy poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning Frank Bidart, which became Gordon’s libretto.

In addition to Ellen’s eating disorder, the question of trans-sexuality is raised, though not clearly. Is she obsessed with why she, or anyone, is made as a woman? Not clear. In a pre-concert talk, Gordon praised Bidart’s reference to Maria Callas, because she is also a diva. We get that Bidart and Gordon are big Callas fans, but injecting a celebrity from later in the 20th century skews the time frame, and this piece doesn’t need another problem.

Cameron Anderson’s clever set, creatively lit by Josh Epstein, is dominated by a psychiatrist’s office. Smaller than the stage, it allows for outside action. A chamber orchestra can be seen playing through the rear window. Lidiya Yankovskaya, music director of Chicago Opera Theater, conducts tenderly, with no stick and plenty of wrist.

Soprano Jennifer Zetlan, the petite powerhouse in the title role, did her intelligent best on July 6 with the difficult conceptual intertwining. Keith Phares has a strong, well-modulated baritone. With or without his jacket, he was a reasonable, inflexibly sedate narrator, as well as the doctor who prescribes medicines and reads a paper on obsessional neuroses – and, briefly, Ellen’s quiet husband.

Gordon, 64, continues to develop musically. This score, more adventurous than his previous works, is still both tonal and lyrical, as well as sensitive to Bidart’s words, which he obviously adores. Phrasing is lucid. After a few hearings the average listener could probably find the highlights singable.

Jennifer Zetlan (Ellen West) and Keith Phares (Dr. Binswanger) in Ricky Ian Gordon’s new opera.

Ellen constantly changes garments, putting on pink coat-dresses in layers as she struggles to find an identity that fits. (Kaye Voyce designed the costumes.) By the time Ellen is discharged, she is twisted up into several dresses at once and looks ridiculous, sitting alone as she silently or noisily conveys anger and frustration.

Two silent white-clad attendants, Nicholas Martorano and Penelope Kendros from the company’s Young Artist Program, hang and straighten the garments. Kendros occasionally eats with her hands. Ellen is painfully repulsed by her lascivious peeling and how she shoves food into her mouth.

By the end, Ellen is in her underwear, ringing the doctor’s bell as she had at the beginning. By then, he is the one on the patient’s divan, while the attendant outside sleeps on a garment.

There were supertitles despite the excellent articulation. The way Phares projects “butter and sugar” or Zetlan puts across “something in me refuses to compromise”: both were amazing.

A scene from Ricky Ian Gordon’s ‘Ellen West’ with Jennifer Zetlan in the psychiatrist’s office.

The last of three Opera Saratoga performances is on July 12 (for tickets, go here). Ellen West will also be seen in 2020 at New York’s Prototype Festival, with a possible prior production at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, Gordon’s alma mater.

The orchestra played nicely; everyone did well. There was a post-performance talk about eating disorders. But as to integrating its story lines, this poem-turned-opera has bitten off more than it can chew.

Leslie Kandell has contributed to The New York Times, Musical America, Musical America Directory, and The Berkshire Eagle.