Around Campus

After Hours: The opera composer

Kenneth Wells
Name: Dr. Kenneth Wells
Title: Professor of psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine and School of Public Health, director of the UCLA Health Services Research Center and adjunct staff member at the RAND Corp.
Second Life: Composer of “The First Lady,” a semi-fictionalized operatic account of the life of Eleanor Roosevelt and the challenges she faced following the death of her husband, President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Music in his genes. “My grandfather was the executive vice president of Bell Telephone and also the choir director at Angelus Temple in Echo Park for famous evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson. She would have these enormous musical extravaganzas in the 1930s — all the Hollywood stars would come because they were so spectacular.”
Early influences. “When I was 9 we moved to a house that had a piano, an old, out-of-tune clunker. I had two years of lessons from my brother’s clarinet teacher, who never touched the piano but taught me to play chords and the melody. Then I was upgraded to a violin teacher who knew nothing about piano technique but showed me how to read the bass and treble clefs. I was learning musical expression and became a phenomenal sight-reader.”
The Hammond organ. “My dad was an electrical engineer for RKO Radio, which used to feature live organ and piano music in radio shows. When I was 13, RKO switched to recorded music and offered their workers the choice of either a 9-foot Steinway grand or a Hammond electric organ for $50. My father chose an organ. It was old and didn’t work, so we spent two years restoring it. It was the most wonderful thing to develop my relationship with my father.
Then my parents found me an organ teacher. For about a year, all he had me play was scales. It was very painful. But then he asked me to be his substitute organist at the L.A. Christian Church. I was also playing organ and piano and leading a teen choir at my Baptist church, and I also got cast as the lead in our high school musical, ‘Bye Bye Birdie.’”
Music or medicine? “When I went on to medical school at UCSF, I told myself, ‘Okay, now it’s time to be serious.’ I gave up all music for six months and was desperately unhappy. So I decided I was going to be doing music for the rest of my life and everything else is going to have to adjust. I coped with getting through medical school and my residency by spending every second I could either playing piano or listening to opera.”
From the production: Eleanor Roosevelt (left), played by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Wallace, and her secretary, Malvania Thompson, played by mezzo-soprano Allison Foster.
From the production: Eleanor Roosevelt (left), played by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Wallace, and her secretary, Malvania Thompson, played by mezzo-soprano Allison Foster.
Writing the opera. “I joined the UCLA faculty in 1980. In the late ’80s, a good friend, Rick Roudebush, was diagnosed with cancer. In 1995, when we still didn’t know if he would survive, I suggested to him and another good friend, Gayle Patterson, that we write an opera libretto to keep Rick’s illness off our minds (He survived and is now a medical transcriptionist at UCLA). Gayle said there were few operas with positive women role models and suggested Eleanor Roosevelt as the central character. Four of us wrote the libretto — with the addition of my theater genius son, Matt. I was the lead librettist and wrote the music. I worked on it for 17 years, off and on. I had a very full life, teaching medical students, doing research. Nobody here knew anything about this.
After the first year I showed a little bit of it to a friend whose musical opinion I respect. He said it was good, but that I needed to write directly for the orchestra instead of writing for piano and then adding instruments. So I read a couple of classic textbooks on orchestration. I studied orchestral scores. I listened to all kinds of new things I hadn’t listened to before to hear how it all works together. Then I threw away everything I wrote the first year except for some remnants of Eleanor’s opening aria, “I Never Wanted to Be a President’s Wife.”
On my way to giving a lecture at the American Psychiatric Association in New York, I wrote the new aria on the airplane and stayed up all night at the hotel finishing it. When Sept. 11 happened, I set it aside. I decided I would never finish the opera — that it took too much time, and I wasn’t good enough. Then, on vacation in Hawaii, this huge release came over me, and I picked up my computer and sketched out most of the remainder of the opera in four days.”  
Psychological drama. “The First Lady” deals with fidelity, betrayal, loss and forgiveness (Eleanor had conflicted relationships with her daughter, Anna Roosevelt Boettiger, and her husband’s lover, Lucy Mercer Rutherford). I was able to use all of my experience as a psychiatrist living through and supporting people through all kinds of aspects of their lives emotionally. It gave me a level of insight into what people struggle with when they’re dealing with betrayal, what moments drive them crazy and what can lead to a breakthrough.”
Staging the opera. “I was fortunate to receive the support of my chairman in psychiatry, Peter Whybrow, for a community outreach project that would include this opera, a symposium and a speaker series. Addressing mental health issues, resiliency and coping with loss — you can’t just do it through science. We did a first reading of the opera in March and, based on that, I spent five months revising the work. My wife (Christina Benson, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA) would tell you I worked around the clock. After a second reading in August, I spent another four months revising. We got an arts production company to help us, and we auditioned for cast and orchestra. Rehearsals started in early January. Seven weeks later we opened on Feb. 19. I would say the premiere was terribly exciting, but I was exhausted. Up until the last minute I was making revisions.”
Audience response. “I was in conflict about the exposure. I’m not used to having such a public connection between the left and right brain. Doing something at this level — a 2 -hour opera as your debut work at the age of 61 — think of it. But the musicians, cast and audience have treated it very seriously. I think they’ve been flabbergasted that it’s well done. And they have been moved. It’s immensely gratifying.
Here I am a scientist, not a trivial part of my life, but how does one be a whole person? I would have to say I decided to actually get the opera into production because I thought it was important to say to the world: We pigeonhole ourselves all the time. We say, ‘I’m this kind of person,’ and that’s all we go with. Who knows what potential people have? There are lots of people who probably could be playwrights, artists or whatever, but do they give themselves the opportunity to play that out? It’s important to me to feel that I don’t have to be just one thing.”
“The First Lady” appears at the West Auditorium of the Jane & Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience & Human Behavior at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 26, Saturday, Feb. 27, and Wednesday, March 3, as well as at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 7. Prior to each performance, lectures will be given by distinguished female leaders. Although all of the reserved seats are gone, sign up here to be added to a waiting list for free tickets. Read the Los Angeles Times story about the creation of the opera here.
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