New chamber opera at UCLA shines light on mental illness

The Center Cannot Hold:  A compelling opera about paranoid schizophrenia

by Katherine Sullivan, Lister reviewer

Whether or not you love opera, whether or not you are familiar with mental disorders, The Center Cannot Hold: A Chamber Opera is a fascinating piece, and an intimate look at a short period in the life of Elyn Saks. Her biography of the same name (right), has become a very important work about paranoid schizophrenia, a diagnosis she received during her college years. Her work, and the oft-viewed TED Talk  (see below) that resulted from it a few years ago, has done much to draw attention to this condition. The opera was presented by the UCLA Center for Health Services and Society, with a score by composer Kenneth Wells, who collaborated with Professor Saks on the libretto.

The primary take-away from this opera is that Elyn Saks is an amazing woman. The portrayal of just one brief segment of her life, the time while she was at Yale Law School, shows so clearly what she fought against and triumphed over. It can leave you scratching your head in disbelief that she has achieved so much in her challenging life.

The lead role is portrayed by three women, showing us different aspects of Elyn Saks. The principal (Yale student) Elyn is sung by  soprano Jamie Chamberlin, who absolutely carries the show. Her vocal stamina is impressive, but so is the way she shows us the struggles and suffering that Elyn faced while at Yale, and especially while hospitalized. Chamberin’s intensity and command of the role are what allow us to know and feel what Elyn Saks was experiencing. Her handling of the score’s erratic vocal leaps was solid, and her singing was beautiful when the score and drama allowed. Her portrayal was powerful emotionally, while never sacrificing the vocal line.

Doubling as the present-day Professor Sake and a sort of narrator, Rebecca Sjöwall was very sympathetic. Her best singing was in the trios, when we felt all of the drama that Wells’ ensemble writing put forward so ably.

A stand-out actress, Danielle Marcelle Bond played Lady of the Charts, portraying Elyn when the psychosis would emerge. Her every movement let us see the suffering and terrifying fear that Elyn was going through. The mannerisms were so startling that no one in the theater could have had any doubt as to the reality she must have faced. When Ms. Bond finally got to sing, her gorgeous mezzo color brought vivid life to the role.

Abdiel Gonzalez sang the role of Dr. Kerrigan, Elyn’s primary antagonist, although the audience is led to believe that the doctor thought he was doing what was right. Gonzalez handled the disjointed vocal lines very well and was, as always, able to carry the sound well over the occasionally too-loud orchestra. His voice was well suited to the role: commanding and ultimately unsympathetic. The voice that was most memorable was Jon Lee Keenan as a psychiatric resident. His sympathy for Elyn was expressed beautifully and sung lyrically, with some of the rare lyric writing in the piece. His beautiful, clear tenor was calming amidst the chaos of emotions that form this work.

Baritone Babatunde Akinboboye lent another beautiful voice, singing the role of Jefferson, a man with mild mental retardation. He also had more lyrical lines to sing, and he did so with full and rich tone. Steve Pence and Jennifer Wallace ably sang the roles of Elyn’s parents. They had occasional appearances and were believable as they learned of their daughter’s diagnosis.

Wells’ score was a good vehicle for this story. The fluttering of the flute in the overture immediately gave the audience notice that something rather uncomfortable was coming. The blending of harmonic and atonal portions worked well to portray the mental disorder, while searching for a solution. The very powerful writing of the first act’s finale gave the audience a good push to come back after the intermission. The composer made some unusual choices, however, such as quite a few moments in Act 1 where a solo voice was left singing a cappella, which did not draw attention to the line, so much as sound unfinished.

Overall, the emotional punch of the story line was so strong that no one could sit through the production without feeling very moved. This was due to the outstanding acting of the cast, the way the score stirred the emotions, and of course, Saks’ courageous storytelling. Act 2 showed Elyn finishing law school and making a real difference in other people’s lives, leaving us feeling hopeful in overcoming staggering obstacles. All three of the Elyns sing “are you listening to me” at various times and together, the ultimate message to anyone who hopes to help, treat or overcome a serious mental disorder. Indeed, for all of us in this increasingly violent world, we need to listen and be heard.

Learn more

Read more about the production on UCLA’s website

See Prof. Saks’ TED talk:

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