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Professor’s Life Story Proves Opera-Worthy



Monday, Jul 25, 2016

 Elyn Saks’ revealing memoir is translated into music

-By Anne Bergman
Who among us has lived a life worthy of an opera? USC Gould Professor Elyn Saks, an acclaimed author and MacArthur Fellow, can now stake that claim as a powerful new chamber opera recently debuted based on her 2007 memoir, “The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.” 
 
The Center Cannot Hold opera concludes with Saks celebrating her graduation from Yale Law School.
Although her bestselling and award-winning memoir reveals her lifelong struggle and journey with mental illness, the opera itself focuses on Saks’ years as a Yale law student. This is when she experienced her first psychotic episode and was hospitalized and diagnosed with chronic paranoid schizophrenia. Through sheer force of will, Saks sought treatment and eventually returned to school, where she made friendships and forged the beginnings of an impressive career focused on advocating for others with mental illness.
 
That career has spanned 30 years, with Saks advancing the understanding of mental illness through her work as an author, scholar and USC Gould professor. In 2010, Saks founded the Saks Institute for Mental Health Law, Policy, and Ethics at Gould with the award money she received when she was honored with a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius Grant.” As director of the Institute, Saks has described her mission as stimulating discussion, developing solutions and changing the way society addresses mental illness.
 
Saks’ longtime friend Dr. Kenneth Wells, a UCLA psychiatrist and director of the Semel Institute’s Center for Health Services and Society, composed the opera and collaborated with Saks on the libretto. Its three-show run in July at the Semel Institute quickly sold out. 
 
To bring the opera to life, Wells and Saks met eight times over three months as they “translated” her story into music. Wells said that he had an advantage as the subject of his opera was someone he knew personally. “I was able to go beyond the book,” he told an audience of psychiatrists, modern music aficionados as well as friends and colleagues of his and Saks who gathered at UCLA for a pre-opera discussion.
 
Despite being intimately involved in the creative process, Saks described conflicting emotions when she heard the opera performed for the first time.
 
“It was a weird feeling, but also kind of cool,” she said. “I think it was difficult for me to watch because Ken did such a good job of capturing what it’s like to be diagnosed as a schizophrenic. I was blown away by how much he ‘got’ my experience.”
 
The opera, which was presented by the Pacific Opera Project and the UCLA Center for Health Services and Society, begins with moments from Saks’ childhood when she first noticed the symptoms of her illness and segues to her breakdown during her first year at Yale Law School, which resulted in her being hospitalized for five months. During this period, Saks was forcibly restrained, and these scenes, as performed on stage, are among the most harrowing.
 
Saks takes a bow with Dr. Kenneth Wells, her longtime friend who composed the opera.
Yet, overall Wells described the opera as “hopeful, just like Elyn herself.” As he wrote the opera, he added the point-of-view of a young psychiatrist who identifies with his patient and has dueling impulses: to protect Saks from harming herself, while simultaneously trying to help her treat and control her schizophrenia so that she can return to her studies. 
 
“I was trying to capture a turning point,” Wells said. “During this period, Elyn had to adapt her coping style. I am impressed with her resolve to withstand all that happened to her and move forward, return to law school and become ‘Somebody.’”
 
The opera’s performance proved revelatory, even for colleagues who have known and worked with Saks for years. “The opera made me think through Elyn’s experience in a way that I had not thought through by reading the book or relating to her,” Richard Van Horn, president emeritus, Mental Health America, Los Angeles, said after seeing the performance. “The opera had an emotional impact that was much greater. You are living this person’s mental illness.” –
 
As an opera, “The Center Cannot Hold” concludes with Saks celebrating her graduation. But in many ways the best was still to come for Saks, who describes her prognosis for living with schizophrenia as “grave,” her professional and personal potential limited. 
 
“Yet that’s not how my life turned out,” Saks said. “I’m happily married to the love of my life, my husband Will. I work in an intellectually stimulating environment. I’ve managed to stay out of the hospital for more than 30 years. I’m proud of that.” 
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