Dr. Kenneth Wells, a UCLA psychiatrist and professor, has spent years working with veterans in Los Angeles, as a clinician and a researcher. He has worked with veterans, and their families, seeking solace from trauma and mental health issues.
But as rewarding as science and practice have been, Wells, who has sung and been a choral director for pleasure since he was a teenager, decided to do something more: write an opera, drawing on more than a decade of experience as a practitioner. Based on research interviews of veterans and family members, and his own personal experience as a provider, and the experiences of his family members as veterans, this is Wells’ third opera on mental health themes to premiere at UCLA.
That work - “Veteran Journeys” – will premiere June 3, the same week as Americans celebrate Memorial Day, a commemoration of U.S. war dead that began after the Civil War - with a second performance June 6. Both programs, virtual because of the pandemic, will include music and lyrics composed by Wells.
“This opera concerns a veteran with trauma from war and a veteran with homelessness, and concerns their development of resilience in recovery through obtaining services,” said Wells, who teaches at the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health, Semel Institute, and David Geffen School of Medicine. “It also reflects family member and provider experience – and what motivates us for resilience in recovery.”
The work is sponsored by Healing and Education through the Arts (HEArts), which supports new art works to promote mental wellness and address mental health stigma, and evaluation of the performances’ impact on audiences. The opera is based on real stories of veterans, family members, and providers from interviews from the landmark “Partners in Care” study by RAND and UCLA, which completed interviews with veterans and their families at 10-year follow-ups. The RAND/UCLA human subjects approval allows using the interviews, without identifying participants, to create the libretto.
“I used my memories of my family members and my own experience growing up, to flesh out the perspective of providers to military and veterans, and other experiences of veterans,” Wells said. “This opera concerns a veteran with trauma from war and a veteran with homelessness, and concerns their development of resilience in recovery through obtaining services.”
The opera premiere will include an evaluation of audience impact, through pre-post voluntary audience surveys and notes/recording of a brief, post-opera chat with composer and cast members. The research component is in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) center at UCLA.
“HEArts is both about developing original arts works on mental health, and about documenting impact,” said Dr. Robert Bilder, a UCLA Health psychologist who serves as principal investigator for the NEA project. “The opera builds on the hope that the interviews conveyed when people suffering from trauma got help and found the support to go forward with their lives and relationships.”
The U.S. Census estimates that, in 2019, there were 243,871 civilian U.S. military veterans living in Los Angeles County. They comprise about 3.1 percent of the county’s civilian population, age 18 years or older. Although the veteran population in Los Angeles County is only 1.3 percent of the nation's civilian veteran population, it is the second largest veteran population of any U.S. county.
In January, 2019, Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority (LAHSA) volunteers counted 3,874 veterans living on the street or in cars, tents, and shelters. The 2018 point-in-time count recorded 3,886 veterans who were homeless in Los Angeles County. Only about 7 percent of people in the U.S. can claim veteran status, but former service members make up around 13 percent of the country's homeless population, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.
UCLA and VA have partnered to serve veterans for more than 70 years, starting with the formation of a medical affiliation between UCLA’s School of Medicine and the VA healthcare system after World War II. The production is also supported by a California Arts Council Veterans in the Arts grant, Wells said.
“One reason that I integrated a focus on art/composing with areas of my clinical and research work, is that community partners in our community-participatory research on depression emphasized the importance of arts as an engagement strategy to address stigma,” Wells said. “That increased my commitment and my interest in doing opera around mental health themes.”
Thursday, June 3rd at 7pm PDT / 10pm EDT
Sunday, June 6th at 2pm PDT / 5pm EDT
“Veteran Journeys,” supported by the California Arts Council, is based on true stories from interviews of veterans and family members, and features artists Jamie Chamberlin, Bernardo Bermudez, Jennifer Wallace, Patrick Blackwell, and Todd Strange, with music and libretto by Kenneth Wells.
The audience will have the option to watch over Zoom Webinar or on YouTube Live (via Smart TVs, Smart Phones or computer).