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'Ellen West' Tackles Anorexia At Opera Saratoga

Ellen West
Lawrence Edelson / Opera Saratoga
Soprano Jennifer Zetlan (left) plays Ellen West. The opera is directed by Emma Griffin (right), with Assistant Director Colton Schoenfish (center).

A new opera that debuted in Saratoga Springs Sunday takes on a difficult subject: eating disorders. 

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon says his newest production, Ellen West, co-commissioned by Opera Saratoga and Beth Morrison Projects, began as a passion project. An adaptation of Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Frank Bidart’s poem of the same name, Ellen West characterizes the patient at the center of a 1921 case study on anorexia. Juxtaposing Ellen’s poetic journal entries with the findings of her psychiatrist, the poem – and the opera – tap into what Gordon calls a universal struggle.  

“In his looking at her eating disorder, both Dr. [Ludwig] Binswanger and Frank, he seems to see the entire world of sort of western despair – what it means to wake up and feel like you need to be something and you’re not," Gordon explains. "What it means to not be enough.”

Ellen West (played by Jennifer Zetlan) says she wants her body to be the "image of her soul."

Gordon says Ellen West, played by soprano Jennifer Zetlan, desperately tries to be thin, blonde, and elegant – as her doctor, played by baritone Keith Phares, and his orderlies, consistently analyze Ellen’s disorder. At one point, Ellen West idolizes opera diva Maria Callas, not only for her voice, but for rumors that the soprano swallowed a tapeworm in order to lose weight. Ellen calls the tapeworm Callas’ “soul.”

"How her soul, uncompromising, insatiable, must have loved eating the flesh from her bones," sings Zetlan's Ellen. 

Equipped with little more than a string quartet, bass, and piano, Opera Saratoga General Director Lawrence Edelson says Ellen West is purposefully flexible. The show’s musicians fit comfortably on stage at Saratoga Spa’s semi-thrust Little Theatre, and its small ensemble keeps it portable ahead of a New York City run. Edelson says some 30 million people struggle with disordered eating in the U.S., and Opera Saratoga was eager to start a dialogue.

“We had a couple of weeks ago, a community symposium…with some representatives actually from HPA Livewell, which is the largest provider of services for those with disordered eating in the Capital Region," says Edelson, "And [we] talked about the opera in the context of disordered eating as a way to develop understanding and empathy for people who are dealing with these issues.” 

Edelson says Opera Saratoga has also hosted talks on Ellen West with local schools – something Ricky Ian Gordon has done with the poem for a while. While Gordon didn’t start chipping away at Ellen West until 2015, his love for Bidart’s work spans decades. He says the script-like nature of the poem made it perfect for opera – but difficult for songwriting. 

"For me to map out a pattern and create an architecture was tricky," Gordon admits. "At one point [Ellen] says 'Why am I a girl?' These little things that are so profound in the poem — I created a context where they appear and disappear all throughout the piece, so that her questions in her mind...little themes, appear and disappear a thousand times." 

Gordon composed Ellen West with Bidart’s blessing. Gordon says it’s the first time the poet, whom he calls “a known recluse,” has had his work adapted for the stage. Bidart actually put together a new prologue for the production, and sat down for a discussion with ticketholders at the show’s premiere. Edelson and Gordon won’t say how the show ends – only that Ellen finds peace in her own way, and audiences should come with an open mind.

"I love to show the diversity of what opera can be. Opera isn't just one thing — it's also the same with movies, some people love romantic comedies, some people like mysteries, some people like film noir," says Edelson. "So this season here we have Ellen West, which is a really special and beautiful project — but we do have more traditional things, like The Daughter of the RegimentLa Fille Du Regiment, we have Hansel and Gretel. And I think that's what makes for an exciting opera-going experience." 

Opera Saratoga will host two more showings at the Saratoga Spa State Park Little Theatre on July 6 and 12, before the production goes to Manhattan early next year. 

Jesse King is the host of WAMC's national program on women's issues, "51%," and the station's bureau chief in the Hudson Valley. She has also produced episodes of the WAMC podcast "A New York Minute In History."
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