'The First Lady,' chamber opera composed by UCLA psychiatrist, debuts on campus Feb. 19
Story explores themes of psychological resiliency in life of Eleanor Roosevelt
When Ken Wells isn't busy with his day jobs as a UCLA professor, director of the UCLA Health Services Research Center and an adjunct staff member at the RAND Corp., he pens operas.
The result of his latest moonlighting efforts is "The First Lady," a semi-fictionalized operatic account of the life of Eleanor Roosevelt during the two weeks following the death of her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, which premieres Friday, Feb. 19, on the UCLA campus. The event is free and open to the public.
Wells, a psychiatry professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA and a professor of health services at the UCLA School of Public Health, has been composing since the age of 12. He wrote the music for "The First Lady" with his best friends, co-librettists Gayle Patterson and Rick Roudebush, and his son Matthew Wells.
The opera is based on real-life events, but some of the details are fictional. On the day of Roosevelt's death, his longtime love, Lucy Rutherfurd, was with him. The president's physician downplayed how sick he was so that Rutherfurd would leave unnoticed before Eleanor arrived. When Eleanor learned the truth from her cousins and discovered that her daughter Anna had supported the affair, her grief turned to shock and betrayal. The journey from that shock to renewal and resiliency is the story of the opera.
"The opera is about the enduring power of love in the face of trauma and betrayal, and of psychological resiliency in the face of individual, family and social-political challenges," Wells said. "And we chose Eleanor Roosevelt because there are so few operas about strong women."
The premiere performance will begin at 7:30 p.m. in the West Auditorium of the Semel Institute, located at 760 Westwood Plaza. Admission is free, but reservations must be made at www.thefirstladyopera.com or by calling 310-794-3711.
Additional performances will take place on Sunday, Feb. 21; Friday, Feb. 26; Saturday, Feb. 27; and Wednesday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m.; and on Sunday, March 7, at 2 p.m.
A daylong symposium on resilience and recovery will precede the Friday premiere, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the UCLA Neuroscience Building Auditorium at 635 Charles E. Young Drive South. The symposium will review strategies from science, policy and the arts to promote resiliency from trauma and disaster and recovery from mental illness.
"Eleanor Roosevelt was widely admired for her energy and resilience at a time when the nation was facing war and social upheaval," Wells said. "Today, our nation continues to face various forms of trauma and social challenges, as well as economic stresses. What strategies can we follow to help develop resilient and productive individuals, families and communities today?"
Prior to each performance — except the Feb. 19 premiere — lectures will be given by outstanding female leaders, including MacArthur fellows Elyn Saks (Feb. 21) and Gretchen Berland (Feb. 27) and NAACP health advocacy awardee Loretta Jones (March 3).
More information about the "The First Lady," the Feb. 19 symposium and guest lecturers is available at www.thefirstladyopera.com.
The opera is co-produced by needtheater (Matt B. Wells, artistic director) and is sponsored by the UCLA Health Services Research Center.
The UCLA Health Services Research Center conducts research to understand how health services are delivered and to improve health services for persons with psychiatric and neurologic disorders across the lifespan. It is part of the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, which is devoted to teaching, research and patient care in psychiatry, neuroscience and related fields.