Featured Art|Sci Composer: Kenneth Wells
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Featured Art|Sci Composer
Kenneth B. Wells
UCLA's Kenneth Wells, MD, MPH, is having an exciting month.

For three weekend dates this July, the musical work which he both composed and wrote as co-librettist is debuting in Los Angeles at the UCLA Louis Jolyon Semel Auditorium. Based on the best-selling memoir by Elyn Saks, The Center Cannot Hold is a chamber opera in two parts and today is the final performance date.


Dr. Ken Wells is the right man to take on an opera about schizophrenia. A psychiatrist, a Senior Scientist at RAND, Professor of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine and Professor of Health Services at the UCLA School of Public Health, he also directs the Health Services Research Center of the Jane and Terry Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior. The Research Center focuses on improving quality of care for psychiatric and neurological disorders across the lifespan, bullet points that are near and dear to the heart of this opera production.

Additionally, Wells is the Principal Investigator of the NIMH-UCLA/RAND Center for Research on Quality in Managed Care and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Community Partnership Initiative, on top of his roles as Co-Director of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation UCLA Clinical Scholars Program, Chair of the Community Health Improvement Collaborative and—last but not least—elected member of the Institute of Medicine (IOM).

His current research interests focus on community-based participatory research methods for mental health services improvement in disadvantaged communities. How perfect, then, that this long and ongoing list of career accolades has come to a theatrical head: the doctor's scientific and artistic passions are in perfect alignment to bring The Center Cannot Hold to life.

Perhaps to better understand Dr. Wells' propensity for illuminating pathways of hope, we should backpedal over a decade in time to when he and Victoria Vesna collaborated in October of 2005. They were joined by Professor Henri Lucas and Dr. Bowen Chung to tag-team a communication strategy project for Hurricane Katrina survivors.

The dialogue of Media + Medicine : Environment + The Mind lecture + symposium—which was organized to help facilitate the launch of the Katrina project—was centered on the collaboration with the Media and Medicine group and led by Ken Wells and Bowen Chung. Students contributed and exhibited their design proposals as part of a special class held by Henri Lucas, its central theme being the development of a better communication system for the New Orleans community.

Today Wells has a new endeavor, one which involves the raising of awareness surrounding schizophrenia in a way that creatively engages attendees of The Center Cannot Hold. With Prof. Elyn Saks as his co-librettist and original source material, he's well equipped to do just that.

We took a brief moment to exchange words with Kenneth and asked him a few questions, so read on to learn what motivated him to begin writing operas, how the idea to collaborate with Elyn originated, advice on balancing art and science plus much more:
Please tell us about your background. Like most students, at some point you had to choose between two cultures—in our case, music and science. Why did you decide to go into the sciences?
I come from several generations on my father’s side of people who had a main professional life in the sciences and an active “second life” in the arts.

For example, my paternal grandfather was an engineer and Vice President of Bell Telephone and the choir director for Aimee Semple McPherson at the Angelus Temple downtown, conducting oratorios with my (eventual) grandmother as soprano soloist. My uncle was an engineer and an accomplished pianist and painter, but only for his—and the family’s—enjoyment. My father was an engineer who later in life did stained glass work, including for a church that lost its windows in a fire in Shell Beach. On my mother’s side, my grandmother was a practical nurse but played piano by ear. And so forth.

When I was born, my mother announced in the delivery room that I would be a doctor and that became my ambition. My musical education started at about age 9, with piano lessons when we moved to a home with an old beat-up, out-of-tune piano in a back room. However, my first teachers were a clarinet and then violin teacher who taught me to read but had never played piano themselves. When I was 14, my dad brought home an organ that we repaired together for a year, and I began organ lessons with a teacher who graduated from Yale music school... and my formal technical musical training began.

My best friend in junior high introduced me to opera recordings, and I decided that someday I would write an opera. I began composing little songs for piano, and I started my own youth choir at church, where I also substituted at organ and piano. I had no question that I would go into medicine until sophomore year of college, when I became immersed in the Occidental College Glee Clubs under Howard Swan—from whom I also took a conducting class—and studied voice and organ while being a pre-medical student.

I briefly tried to “give up” music when I went to medical school at UCSF because I thought I had to become “serious.” After 6 months, I was so unhappy that I decided I would always be doing music for the rest of my life, even as a doctor. So I sang in the SF Bach choir, substituted for organ at church, and wrote little songs for my family members and friends as presents, most of which were never performed throughout my medical school years.

I had internal struggles on and off for the next 10 years as to whether I should focus more on music.

During my research training after psychiatry residency, I began my own singing group (The Mansfield Chamber Singers) and have now been its conductor and sometimes composer/arranger for 37 years. Meanwhile, I was developing my career as a scientist/health services researcher, clinician and educator at UCLA and The RAND Corporation. My conflict about music or medicine was largely resolved when I decided that I would work to put as much of my creative self into my research as I could, so I began an arts/media program within my research center at UCLA.

With community partners in Los Angeles such as Loretta Jones of Healthy African American Families, I became immersed in partnered research initiatives using community engagement across whole communities to address depression and build resiliency. I began to base more of my music compositions on themes from my work. For example, my current opera is on the subject of recovery from/surviving/thriving despite having schizophrenia: The Center Cannot Hold, based on the memoir of Elyn Saks.

Even in the last month, I have developed a new theme song for our community engagement work based on a poem of colleague Loretta Jones, premiered at our annual partnered-research community engagement conference. Some of the story of this development is captured in a set of online vlog interviews:

Many scientists are musicians on the side, but you managed to take it to another level by composing and staging a full opera. At which point did you start feeling like you are able to do both?
To be honest, that level of development was unexpected, even though it was years in the making up to the premiere of my first opera in 2010. As told in an L.A. Times cover story by Martha Groves on the day of that premiere, I had begun my first opera as a way to cope with the potential loss to cancer of the childhood friend—Rickard Roudebush—who introduced me to opera. To distract ourselves, we agreed to work on a libretto and were joined by a friend, Gayle Patterson, and my older son, Matt Wells, to work together over a period of about 2 years to frame and write an opera libretto. When my friend was announced “cured” five years later, I vowed to write the music.
“If you can survive the cancer, I can write this opera.”

However, it never occurred to me that I would finish or see it produced. It took me nearly 20 years to compose the opera because I had to learn how to orchestrate and compose directly for orchestra rather than working it out on the piano, and because I was developing my very active science career and family life. I learned that by composing at least 20 minutes each day, I could keep that part of me “alive” enough to be able to flow in and out of composing and keep the opera going. I took off years at a time – to do science grants, primarily. Then one day, after a nearly 5-year gap in composing, I went on vacation with my family to Hawaii and nearly completed the rest of the opera in 4 days staring out over the ocean; it just poured out of me.

Then when it was done—I had to hear it live. I got advice from colleagues in the UCLA Music Department and around town who advised doing workshops to make sure it would work, which led to many revisions. Then I decided to co-produce it with my older son’s theater company, Needtheater (the same son who co-wrote the libretto) and my research center sponsored education sessions and outreach.

It was a strange and exciting experience to, on the one hand, be doing my clinical, teaching and science work and, on the other hand, be active in the production, auditioning singers, and working with an amazingly talented team of singers, conductor (Stephen Karr), director (Courtney Selan) and stage crew. I revised some part of the work almost daily during the rehearsal period—and voila! The workshop appeared on stage.

It was only then, after the premiere, that I realized I could do this. It’s like something “opened up” inside of my head and heart on the night of that premiere.
[VIDEO] The Center Cannot Hold Preview Snippet

Does your work in the sciences influence your compositions and/or does your musical work influence your scientific research and practice?
Yes, Yes, and Yes. What I have found out through the experience of developing operas is that across my science, clinical / community work, and my music, I am interested in common ideas, human situations, and growth points. The story of what helps a human being thrive in the context of stress is at the heart of my work in all of these areas, and I have learned that it is possible to track and develop common themes across different domains of work and of experiencing life.

I am particularly interested in “turning points” or decisions that are key to what people become or decide to do—and this concept of a turning point and the personal, interpersonal, and policy/community context are at the heart of my first opera: The First Lady (how does one continue to have dignity and resiliency in the face of loss and betrayed love?); and feature in my new opera (how does one have the will and resiliency to overcome a severe illness and develop one’s work and meaningful relationships?); as well as our large community-based depression projects (Community Partners in Care—how can communities work together to support resiliency for people living with depression?).

My understanding of resiliency, thriving and overcoming adversity has been greatly enriched by my close collaboration with communities, patients, providers and systems, which in turn has enriched my ability to empathize with characters in my operas, to translate how they might feel into music—within the framework and range of musical language that I know.

Why did you decide to write / compose an opera on Eleanor Roosevelt?
The specific idea of Eleanor Roosevelt as a subject was suggested by Gayle Patterson when she and Rick and I took a trip to the opera in Sante Fe, New Mexico and I suggested we write an opera libretto to cope with his cancer diagnosis.

She said that there were few operas about women that were positive, and she thought Eleanor would be a great subject matter. She has a degree in history and took a lot of responsibility of background reading materials, and it quickly became apparent that this would be a great subject for an opera. We ended up choosing a period in her life when she faced a great crisis—losing a husband, learning of an ongoing infidelity, and a nation at war expecting her as First Lady to respond in some way to the collective loss.

That particular theme and focus emerged over the course of many discussions together over two years of writing, reading, debates, discussions and even visiting key locations. This L.A. Times story explains further: firstlady19-2010feb19

Many young scientists and artists would like to continue pursuing both art & science at an equal level but are discouraged. What advice do you have for them?
Over the course of my life, there hasn't always been an equal balance of art and science, but it has been very important to me to keep some balance.

One also has to balance personal and family needs. Finding good outlets, understanding how creativity and discipline can feed both art and science, noticing what engages you in each, and spending at least some time in each domain, if not every day, at least as regularly as possible—can help to keep diverse interests developing and present in one’s life. For me, the 20-minutes-per-day rule for developing my opera worked—and while not always necessary, it was necessary to initially get going and after big breaks.

I would not say that I do science and art at an equal level; the majority of my time and effort is in science, and the community phase of this work over the last 13 years has increased my personal sense of involvement and creativity within science. But even though—in terms of time and formal accomplishment—music is “secondary,” in my heart and soul there is an equal balance in terms of meaning and feeling complete as a person.

I would say that my mother instilled in me, from my early days, the
confidence in my ability to do anything I set my mind on doing. I had the example of my parents balancing multiple roles which were important to them—work, art, Boy Scouts leadership, church, family life, and the specific examples over generations of actively pursuing art and science.

I also had my personal experience from periods when I was NOT doing music as actively, letting me know that something was “off.” I felt better and more whole while pursuing music. I felt especially whole—and more like I feel during a large community-based science project—when composing an opera. However, I do not expect that my musical outlets will lead to the formal recognition that I have had for my research.

For me, that is OK because I have the satisfaction and experience of creating music.
[VIDEO] The Center Cannot Hold  Opera: How It All Began

Tell us about your latest opera that is about to be premiered.
The Center Cannot Hold is a chamber opera in two acts, like my first opera. It is based on a portion of the acclaimed memoir of the same title by USC law Professor Elyn Saks. She was one of a series of noted women speakers who gave lectures prior to each presentation of The First Lady in 2010.

After the performance, I drove home and she remarked: “That was great. Let’s collaborate!” “How?” I asked, “a science project or an opera?” “Both!” she replied, and the idea of developing an opera from her book came to me.

I drafted the libretto (about twice the material used in this opera) after meeting together a number of times over the following 4
6 months. Much of the opera music was completed in two years (ten times faster than The First Lady), and the first version was copyrighted in 2012. However, I kept feeling that more of Elyn’s story needed to be told, and it took me a few more years to write two additional scenes, cut the opera, refine and revise, and feel ready for a new workshop performance.

The opera is about one period during her Yale law school studies, when she had a psychotic episode and was hospitalized, and given a diagnosis of schizophrenia. The Center Cannot Hold tells the story of that experience and how she worked to complete law school, develop coping strategies to manage symptoms, develop friendships, and become a productive, creative scholar with a vision and mission for her work. It has been an inspiring story for me, like the other “bookend” to the resiliency story of Eleanor Roosevelt... the recovery/resiliency story of Elyn Saks.

In addition, to flesh out what her providers may have experienced (mostly fictionalized or consolidating several characters into one), given the limits of scientific knowledge at the time, I used my own experience in psychiatric training to flesh out characters beyond what it is Elyn’s book. What was really interesting for me as a composer was finding a different “voice” for the characters and tone for the production relative to The First Lady or anything else I had previously composed. Finding that musical voice was influenced by experiences as a psychiatric resident and on-call attending in giving care to patients and observing challenges, coping strategies and hopes exchanged among patients, staff, and family members.

The opera is really about falling apart psychologically (i.e., the center cannot hold) and learning that maintaining some degree of control through insight, even if it is an appearance of control, can be the starting point of recovery—coupled with treatment and compassionate support from genuine friendship. That combination plus Elyn’s natural gifts and hard work, supported her ability to help others, graduate from law school, and make unique contributions to scholarship and advocacy on behalf of patients’ rights which later led to her receiving a MacArthur genius award.

The musical language, like my first opera, relies on a traditional compositional base with touches of musical theater and even an homage to Beethoven, as well as harmonically and rhythmically more complex sections to represent psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations and delusions.

There is a very large role for chorus, and Elyn is played by 3 different singers: the “narrator,” law professor Saks; the law student Elyn; and a representation of her psychotic self, the “Lady of the Charts.” The opera has a cast of 18
20 singers and an orchestra of 13 players. The running time is somewhat over two hours, and there are pre-performance talks (first two performances) and a post-performance dialogue for the last opera.

Reservations are available on a first-come first-served, limited basis at:
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