Opera delivers hopeful message on living with mental illness

New work focuses on the true story of an acclaimed law professor’s remarkable recovery.

woman comforting person in hospital bed

A brilliant law student struggling with schizophrenia defies expectations to become a renowned legal and psychiatry scholar with a rich life full of family and friends.

For UCLA Fielding professor, UCLA Health psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Kenneth Wells, the inspirational true-life tale of his friend, USC professor Elyn Saks, was a perfect fit for his other job: opera composer.

Wells has written a new opera based on Saks’ acclaimed 2007 memoir, “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness,” which details her lifelong experience with schizophrenia, from her first psychotic experiences in high school to ascending the ranks of academia at a prestigious law school. The opera, which will be performed in June at the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, is the fourth written by Wells and the second about Saks.

Wells’ first opera about Saks focused on pivotal moments in her mental illness as a Yale Law School student: climbing to the top of a library rooftop late at night and bursting out into song, psychiatric hospitalizations for long stretches of time, and the terror of being bound by restraints. It ends with her graduating from law school, continuing on an uncertain path to recovery.

The new opera, “The Center Cannot Hold, Part 2: Recovery,” follows Saks on the next steps in that journey, as she joins the USC law faculty and meets and falls in love with a law librarian who would later become her husband.

“I think it's important for people to know that even with a serious mental illness there are paths to having meaningful and rich lives,” said Wells, a professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and Semel Institute.

Pairing two passions

An opera fan since childhood, Wells has sought to pair his professional and personal passions to spotlight uplifting stories about mental health. His most recent opera, the award-winning “Veteran Journeys,” showcased the mental health struggles of America’s military veterans by mining years of research interviews, in addition to Wells’ own experiences as a family member of veterans and in counseling veterans. “The First Lady,” his first opera from more than a decade ago, was a semi-fictional depiction of how Eleanor Roosevelt dealt with grief in the aftermath of her husband’s death.

Wells first became aware of Saks’ story after his wife, psychiatrist M. Christina Benson, was a teacher for Saks at the psychoanalytic institute and went on to develop a friendship with her. Saks admits “it kind of blew my mind” when Wells approached her with the idea of turning her memoir into an opera. She was always a music lover, but she had little experience with opera and questioned whether her story made for good theater.

“I so admired Ken’s psychiatric work and his musical work,” said Saks, who co-wrote the librettos for both operas based on her memoir. “I was very touched, moved and honored.”

The ‘Three Elyns’

Before writing the first opera about Saks, Wells interviewed her numerous times to understand how her experiences with schizophrenia – the delusions, the disordered thinking – could translate to the stage. One idea that emerged from those conversations was to have three different performers play Saks to represent the different parts that made up her identity. There’s the law student, the law professor, and the “Lady of the Charts,” who represents her psychosis. The “Three Elyns” return in the new opera, as Saks deals with managing her mental illness.

“My husband, Will, says that psychosis is not like an on-off switch – it’s more like a dimmer,” Saks said.

For Saks, who won a MacArthur genius award and delivered a widely viewed TED talk on her chronic schizophrenia diagnosis, success in her personal life and career were anything but assured. Early in her life, she was told her illness made it unlikely she could live alone independently, let alone work. She attributes her ongoing well-being to three major factors: access to great mental health treatment, caring friends and family, and engaging work that occupies her mind.

Saks said she hopes the new opera can help reduce stigma around mental illness and let people “take away more understanding of what this experience of mental illness is like.”

The new opera also includes a pre-performance workshop highlighting mental health prevention and resilience resources in the community, as well as an appearance by Saks. As with Wells’ previous operas, there’s also an academic element to this new work. Pre- and post-performance surveys, as well as a post-performance audience discussion, will inform research about how the opera affected attitudes toward mental health.

“The Center Cannot Hold, Part 2” will be performed on June 17, June 23 and June 25 at UCLA Semel Auditorium. Performances will also be livestreamed. More information is available here.

The opera is supported by grants from the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health and the California Mental Health Services Authority through the Take Action LA for Mental Health initiative, which promotes engagement around mental health issues.
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Faculty Referenced in this Article

Dr. Kenneth Wells
Kenneth Wells
Health Policy and Management
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