Jennifer Zetlan (Ellen West), Nathan Gunn (Ludwig Binswanger/Poet/Husband), instrumental sextet, c. Lidiya Yankovskaya. Bright Shiny Things BSTC-0139 (one CD)
Since it’s a syndrome the depressions, anxieties and frequently devastating consequences of which are estimated to affect about one in every 50 people, there’s reason for concern about the lack of a good popular understanding of Body Dysmorphic Disorder. By the same token, there’s reason to applaud the arrival of an opera that bravely places the syndrome at its centre. Ellen West does this by dramatizing a case history made famous by Ludwig Binswanger, the eminent Swiss psychiatrist who developed a form of psychoanalysis based on the (existential and phenomenological) ideas of the philosopher Martin Heidegger. His study, one of the first of its kind to deal with BDD, appeared in 1944; in 1977 it became the subject of a poem by the Pulitzer prizewinner Frank Bidart; this in turn became the libretto for Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera, premiered by Opera Saratoga in 2019. Dealing with what the composer describes as ‘the avalanche that happens when the inner being and the outer being are at war with each other’, the opera tells the distressing but not unfamiliar story of a young woman so unhappy with her body that she took extreme measures to compel it to conform to her ideal—an ideal related, unsurprisingly, to gender stereotypes. Severe anorexia was one of the inevitable outcomes; suicide eventually followed. If this is a recondite topic for an opera, it’s explained in part by the composer’s well- known practice of linking his operas to American literary works, and in part by his own struggles with addiction (including an eating disorder), about which he has been remarkably open.
Gordon set out to make the work ‘affordable’. The result is a chamber opera for two singers and instrumental sextet, with a running time of 73 minutes. The ‘operatic poem’, as he terms it, switches between imagined entries in Ellen’s journals, which make up the much larger part, and passages from Binswanger’s clinical records. Gordon is a prolific composer (this is his seventh opera); the New York Times has described his music as ‘caviar for a world gorging on pizza’, and has praised it for ‘the bursting effervescence infusing songs that blithely blur the lines between art song and the high-end Broadway music of Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim’. That may be so; but this, by contrast, is an opera of high philosophical and psychological seriousness, based on what Binswanger called ‘the ground of Western thought, the “mind-body” problem’. In naming the central character ‘West’, he implied that Western thought was precisely ‘the mystery on which her life [was] impaled’. Ellen’s struggles with mind and body, and specifically with the prescriptions of gender, took intensely dramatic form: ultimately she longed not to have a body at all.
To this story of great psychological and physical pain, the music is marvellously attentive. The poem has a conversational character, to which the score is aptly fitted, mercurially adapting to the contours of the swiftly evolving story. The idiom is a flowing arioso, exceptionally fluent and expressive, with a melodic cantilena wonderfully sustained over long passages. The characterizations are sharp—Binswanger’s music is decisive, secure and firmly grounded, Ellen’s is much more volatile— and the score is transparent and supportive: it seems to wrap itself around each word, each sentiment, with empathy and care. The personal resonance that the poem had for the composer is almost palpable. Perhaps the most memorable section of the work begins with Binswanger’s report that, for Ellen, art is the ‘mutual permeation’ of the ‘world of the body’ and the ‘world of the spirit’. As one of the opera’s founding ideas, this inaugurates, first, a subtle evocation of Tosca, then Ellen’s sustained mediation on Maria Callas’s own mental and physical struggles and how these affected her work as an artist. It’s marvellously done and deeply moving.
The instrumental sextet, superbly performed here by players including the Aeolus Quartet, is more than accompaniment: constantly alive to the poignant issues at stake, its role is closer to that of a thoroughly engaged participant, anticipating, repeating, summarizing, commenting. Empathetic and beautifully wrought, the sextet’s role, wordless like the ‘bodyless’ Ellen, is one of the joys of the work.
In the title role, Jennifer Zetlan—her voice perfectly suited to the task, her lines delivered with striking clarity and precision—is remarkable. Seeming to inhabit the poem’s space between body and soul, the freshness, the lightness of her vocal sheen supports Ellen’s view of her ‘true self’ as a ‘sort of blond elegant girl whose body is the image of her soul’. In the role (mainly) of Binswanger, Nathan Gunn is both convincing and richly expressive, his full-bodied baritone communicating human warmth and serious concern. The live recording, from the Prototype Festival in January 2020, is excellent.