A struggle with an eating disorder and gender identity may seem an unusual subject for an opera, but that’s what occupies the center of a new adaptation of Frank Bidart’s poem “Ellen West.” Ricky Gordon, the composer of this soon to be premiered opera, first discovered Bidart’s long, narrative poem during a period of personal tragedy. On August 1, 1996, he lost his partner, Jeffrey Grossi, from complications of AIDS. In the aftermath of this loss, Gordon was completely broken and turned to books and poems to help him through a period of grief. One of the works he found during this time was “Ellen West.”
Largely a composer of vocal works, Gordon has a penchant for poignantly and expertly blending modern art song, opera and musical theater. The New York City-based composer also has a history of adapting ambitious literary works into music (his three-act opera of The Grapes of Wrath premiered in Minnesota in 2007). For Gordon, “Ellen West” has long been on his list of pieces to tackle. “Frank Bidart got at something so private that I was utterly shocked when I read that poem,” he said. “As time wore on, the piece that really lived inside me, that really called out to me was ‘Ellen West.’”
Written in alternating voices— a doctor’s clinical notes on West (a suicidal poet) and West’s own stream-of-consciousness reveries—the poem already reads a bit like a one-act play. However, below this narrative of a patient suffering in a sanatorium, “Ellen West” is a visceral exploration of one woman’s struggle to gain meaning beyond the demands and confines of her body and her gender.
“She’s a diva,” said Bidart about the character he created for the poem. He compares West to famous opera soprano Maria Callas, who makes a vital appearance in the poem. “[West] becomes one with metaphysical ideas: the idea that she is tormented by the question: ‘Why am I a girl?’” Bidart said. “She is crucified on the cross of these ideas, on the incompatible demands of mind and body.”
West’s existential search resonates with anyone who’s ever battled an eating disorder or felt they were in the wrong body. Like other famous creative figures with eating disorders—Karen Carpenter of The Carpenters or poet and essayist Anne Sexton—Ellen West is a mercurial genius and beauty starved out by existential dread. She was a real person, too.
One of the first patients treated with existential analysis, a form of person-oriented psychotherapy, Ellen West was the pseudonym of a patient of the Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger. West, whose real name is still unknown, was born at the end of the 19th century, probably to wealthy Jewish parents in the United States who later immigrated with her to Europe. Much of West’s story, especially her early life, remains a mystery because Binswanger removed from his report nearly all mention of family history. However, it is known that West had an interest in literature; she kept journals and wrote poetry throughout her life. In January 1921, after a long struggle with depression and two suicide attempts, West was admitted to Binswanger’s sanatorium in Kreuzlingen, Switzerland, where Binswanger attempted to treat her through analysis, a process that serves as the basis for Bidart’s poem. However, after two-and-a-half months of unsuccessful treatment, Binswanger concluded that West was incurable and, on March 30, West’s husband took her home. Three days later, at just the age of 33, West committed suicide by poisoning herself.
“I’ve struggled myself with eating disorders,” Gordon said about his connection to the real-life West. “There’s no true clinical language, I think, that describes the inner life, what’s going on in your head about eating and your body, and that’s why this poem is so vital.” In 2015, after completing a number of other projects, Gordon finally began work on “Ellen West.” With nothing more than Bidart’s email address at Wellesley College— where the poet has taught for more than 45 years—Gordon wrote Bidart a long message about his relationship to the poem. Before long, Bidart wrote back, saying: “Your letter moved me a great deal. I am eager to see what you do with ‘Ellen West.’”
Bidart is a central figure in contemprary American poetry. After graduating from the University of California, Riverside in 1962, he went on to graduate school at Harvard University where he studied with poet Robert Lowell and worked as Lowell’s secretary for a time. He also befriended poet Elizabeth Bishop, who named Bidart her literary executor upon her death in 1979. “Ellen West” isn’t the first of Bidart’s poems to be adapted for another medium. Back in 2010, Bidart worked closely with actor James Franco, who based a short film on “Herbert White,” a poem about a serial killer. Last year Bidart won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and the year before that received the National Book Award.
After acquiring the rights to adapt “Ellen West,” Gordon immersed himself in the transforming of the long, intense poem with no set meter or rhyme scheme—not the likeliest text to inspire a libretto—into the rich and expansive melodic lines that his music’s known for. Upon Gordon’s request, Bidart even wrote a new prologue to open the opera in which the poet explains Ellen’s dilemma in the following excerpt:
Ellen was obsessed with eating and the arbitrariness of gender and having to have a body.
Ellen lived out the war between the mind and the body—as Binswanger tells it, lived out in her body each stage of the war, its journey and progress, in which compromise, reconciliation is attempted then rejected then mourned.
At last, intolerable existence seemed to her the snake that swallows its own tail.
So she smashed the head of the snake.
After Gordon sent him the music he’d written for the prologue, Bidart decided it wasn’t finished yet and rewrote it, adding two-and-a-half pages of text to the libretto. For the epilogue, Gordon adapted one of Bidart’s shorter poems called “Hymn.” “I know how brilliant and moving the piece is,” Bidart said about the operatic adaption. “The whole is a tightly strung bow, an arrow aimed with great penetration.”
Bidart’s connection to Ellen West is surprisingly similar to Gordon’s. The award-winning poet encountered West’s case study earlier in his life and held on to the idea of writing a poem about her for many years. When Bidart’s mother died, he was looking for a way to expel his own grief and suicidal thoughts. The result was “Ellen West,” published in In the Western Night: Collected Poems which appeared in 1990, the year after Bidart’s mother died.
If the text of the opera earns Bidart praise as a librettist, he reminds us that all he did was “make a poem as good as I could make it almost fifty years ago.” Bidart continues, “Ellen rides a storm at sea and then is drowned in it.”
The opera is currently in rehearsal at Opera Saratoga in Saratoga Springs, New York where “Ellen West” will have its world premiere on Sunday, June 30. Opera Saratoga has a reputation for premiering ambitious new works that don’t necessarily fit the traditional operatic mold. In 2015, the company produced the world premiere of The Long Walk, based on the book of the same name by Brian Castner, which explores the return of a soldier from Iraq where he served in an Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit. The Opera Saratoga production of “Ellen West” relies largely on a creative team of women, including director Emma Griffith, Lidiya Yankovskaya, as conductor and soprano Jennifer Zetlan who will make her Opera Saratoga debut as Ellen. “It was obvious that you couldn’t deny the feminine points of view in this piece,” said Gordon. “We decided that we should have a woman director, a woman conductor and both the costume and set designers are women too.”
Just short of a century after the real West’s death, it’s clear that she remains a catalyst whose struggle resonates for a contemporary audience, first as she appeared in Bidart’s poem and now as she animates Gordon’s ambitious and powerful new opera.