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Psychiatry professor Kenneth Wells composes ‘The First Lady,’ his debut opera

By Jillian Ames

Feb. 21, 2010 11:35 p.m.

While psychiatry Professor Kenneth Wells has been composing music since the age of 12, he had never before written an opera for a public audience.

This changed Feb. 19, as the West Auditorium of the Semel Institute swelled to its full capacity with people piling in to see the premiere of the opera composed by Wells, psychiatry professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA.

“The First Lady” is about Eleanor Roosevelt’s discovery of her husband’s affair and subsequent efforts to deal with his ongoing dalliances into adultery.

“(The opera) discusses what it means to be a resilient person,” Wells said. “It shows how three women try to resolve something and come to a better place with each other and themselves not through domination, but through an understanding of connectedness.”

“The First Lady” is reflective of Wells’ work as a psychiatrist. Wells specializes in depression, and has divided his work into three main topics: understanding the impact of depression on people’s daily life, the effectiveness of treatment and how to get the necessary care and support during the recovery process.

Through his work, Wells has found that depression has the equivalent impact on an individual as a heart attack, but that the ensuing trauma can be greatly improved through treatment, he said.

“Even getting help once can change the direction of (an individual’s) whole life,” Wells said.

Wells said he has found that the depression of minorities especially improved from getting access to treatment. Thus, the opera is an artistic effort to demonstrate an example of resilience and action that integrates policy, science and people helping each other all within historical context, Wells said.

What Wells finds especially unique about this opera is that it is being performed at a medical school.

“It is remarkable that we have a department of psychiatry that is willing to host an opera on themes related to (my) work,” Wells said.

The Neuropsychiatric Institute Health Services Research Center is sponsoring the program because the opera is about resilience and reaching out to the community, which is what the center seeks to accomplish, said Elizabeth Lizaola, who is actively involved in the opera’s organizational process.

Wells said people and departments all across campus have been involved in the production of the opera, including the theater, music and psychiatry departments. In fact, many current UCLA students and alumni are in the opera itself, including the conductor and a few singers, one of whom plays a lead female role.

Although opera is a traditional art medium that many students may not be familiar with, Wells said it is still relevant to students because the themes are universal.

“How do we remain who we are and grow? How do you overcome a personal blow? How do we betray? These themes are still relevant across all age groups,” Wells said.

In addition to the premiere of the opera on Friday, the weekend featured a series of lectures by accomplished women who spoke about the opera’s main theme of resilience.

Elizabeth Bromley, a psychiatrist and anthropologist who spoke on Sunday, said her lecture would link creativity and scientific research, which is what the opera seeks to accomplish.

The opera will be showing Friday, Feb. 26, Saturday, Feb. 27, Wednesday, March 3, and Sunday, March 7.

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Jillian Ames
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