I saw *Ellen West* at the Prototype Festival on 1/17/20. It’s a new opera with music by Ricky Ian Gordon on a text by Frank Bidart. It was the best of the four operas I saw at Prototype - - it excelled in the four things I look for in an opera performance, especially in a new opera:
Gordon chose a story that was inherently dramatic, and a story that meant something to him. *Ellen West* is a fictionalization of a case study by a Swiss psychiatrist from the 1930s, about a patient who suffered from gender identity issues and a severe eating disorder, both of which were nearly unheard of at the time. Gordon read Bidard’s long poem in the 1990s and always wanted to set it. He got in touch with Bidart and convinced him to not only let him turn it into an opera, but to write a new prologue and epilogue.
The music was constantly engrossing. It gave the impression of being tonal but was probably more abstract than it seemed. It was grounded, original, highly logical music. The text setting was exceptional, the writing for the voices was beautifully done. The writing for instruments was idiomatic and inventive - - the piece was scored for string quartet, bass, and piano. Conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya is an up-and-coming conductor (if I’m to believe Opera News, and why wouldn’t I?), she brought out all the colors in the score.
The opera was directed by Emma Griffin. It was a unit set and she used the space and especially the lighting in a way to amplify the drama. The one misstep of the show was the two extra, non-singing characters she added, a man and woman - - it was unclear what they were doing, they seemed to interact with the characters but not really. They mostly just drew focus away from the story, I think the opera would be much stronger with just the two singers.
One other misstep: why do we need nudity? The character of Ellen got completely naked near the end of the show, and it didn’t add anything, it seemed gratuitous. I see a lot of nudity onstage lately, almost always with women, and it bothers me.
Gordon wrote two fantastic roles that were demanding of the singers and also, it seems, very gratifying. Nathan Gunn primarily played the psychiatrist, but also played the poet (Frank Bidart) and Ellen’s husband in one scene. I’d heard Gunn many times, most memorably in the title role of *Billy Budd* in Chicago, as Billy in *Carousel* at the NY Philharmonic, and as Clyde in *An American Tragedy* at the Met. These roles all leaned heavily on this beauty of his voice, his hunky leading man good looks, and his personal charisma. This role certainly put his beautiful voice front and center, but he could check his good looks and charisma at the door. In exchange we got probing intelligence and deep musicality. These were probably always present, but they’ve deepened with age.
Jennifer Zetlan played Ellen West. I’d never heard her before, and what an extraordinary singer. The most thrilling element of her performance was her idiosyncratic handling of rhythm - - she gave the impression that the vocal line was being spontaneously created, her use of rhythm sprung out of the text and the dramatic moment. I’d never heard anything like it. Her voice is even throughout her range and especially thrilling above the staff, which we like in a soprano.
Here's a video of her singing Lulu's aria from Alban Berg's *Lulu.* You get a good sense of her voice, and those thrilling high notes (there's a fabulous high D at 2:15, and an equally stunning high C and B flat soon after), but most impressively you get a feeling of how she takes this thorny ultra modern music and makes it musical and dramatic.