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Mining the Mind of Ellen West

October 3, 2020

Is the mental state of those in the highest offices of multiple lands having a trickle-down effect on American opera composers? That’s one possible explanation for the proximate release of two world-premiere recordings of operas that examine the mental states of their protagonists: Lei Liang and Matt Donovan’s Inheritance, which focuses on psychotic Winchester Repeat Gun Company heir Sarah Winchester, and Ricky Ian Gordon and Frank Bidart’s chamber opera Ellen West (Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0139), which examines Ellen West, “a woman at war with her body.”

Ellen West, recorded live at the January 2020 Prototype Festival in Brooklyn, is based on a poem by Pulitzer Prize-winning Bidart that examines West’s clinical level eating disorder and schizophrenia via entries in her fictional diary. What we know about the actual West (1888-1921) — not her real name — is that she engaged in existential analysis with pioneering Swiss psychiatrist Dr. Ludwig Binswanger. Binswanger, who later documented her case, discovered a woman so obsessed with eating and the need to lose weight that she had dropped to 92 pounds, lost her child due to starvation-induced miscarriage, and was on a self-willed death course. After West was confined to a mental hospital, Binswanger facilitated the release that led to her suicide by poison at age 33.

The basic facts presented above are available on Wikipedia, but not in the opera’s liner notes. Nor do the notes tell you that baritone Nathan Gunn sings three different roles: Bidart, Ellen’s husband, and Binswanger. (I only found out by searches for reviews of the opera’s performances.) The libretto, as printed, does not even indicate who is singing, or inform us that the loud “ding” that begins the opera represents a dinner bell.

There is certainly no mention of poetic license, as in West’s reaction to the artistry of Maria Callas, who was born two years after the real West died. Nor do we learn that the opera was inspired by the 1996 AIDS-related death of Gordon’s partner — a that loss led Gordon to seek solace in poetry and, eventually, in Bidart’s poem. I expect that attendees at the opera’s performances learned this from the program notes; I only discovered it in a press release. In short, record label Bright Shiny Things fails to supply basic information essential for understanding what is unfolding.

Comprehension would surely be easier if Gunn had adopted different voices for his three characters, in the tradition of the finest singers of Schubert’s famed song, Der Erlkönig (The elf king). Instead, he invests every note with the same seductively debonair, smooth tone for which he is prized. His diction is exemplary and his instrument, save for a bit of push higher up and a slight wobble on sustained notes at the top of the range, as beautiful as ever. At times, he softens to express concern or show sensitivity. But ultimately, he provides a lovely, one-size-fits-all performance that rarely reflects the gravity of the situation. Perhaps the wonderful Keith Phares, who performed in the opera’s premiere, provided far more nuance.

That leaves us with soprano Jennifer Zetlan’s West and a six-person chamber orchestra, conducted by music director Lidiya Yankovskaya. Multiple reviews praise Zetlan’s performance, but I hear a wide-ranging voice that sounds a mite squeaky in the midrange, quite strong on top, and most attractive when the tone is consciously softened on some midrange passages. Some may argue that Zetlan’s slightly fragile, oft-eerie sound is appropriate for the character, but opera history is replete with counter-examples. Nor is pleasure granted by the acidic high tones of one of the Aeolus Quartet’s close-miked violinists.

Reviews attest to the power of Ellen West as theater. In audio-only format, however, the musical line devoted to dialogue too often seems arbitrary, reflecting neither the pitch of conversational speech nor specific emotions. To these ears, the opera’s music-only interludes are its most touching, beautiful, and effectively unsettling. Hopefully an HD video version of a successful production will become available once COVID-19 passes and more productions are mounted.

Jason Victor Serinus regularly reviews music and audio for Stereophile, SFCV, Classical Voice North America, AudioStream, American Record Guide, and other publications. The whistling voice of Woodstock in She’s a Good Skate, Charlie Brown, the longtime Oakland resident now resides in Port Townsend, Washington.