The Center Cannot Hold Opera

The Center Cannot Hold: A Chamber Opera is a new musical work based on the memoir of the same name by Elyn Saks. The opera had its workshop premiere on July 8th, 10th, and 16th, 2016; Presented by Pacific Opera Project (POP) and the UCLA Center for Health Services and Society; Music by Kenneth Wells; Libretto by Kenneth Wells and Elyn Saks; Produced by Kenneth Wells, Elizabeth Lizaola and Joseph Mango; Conducted by Stephen Karr; Directed by Brendan Hartnett.

The idea of developing the new opera came about after Dr. Saks, Law Professor at USC and MacArthur Award winner, served as a guest speaker for a performance of The First Lady Opera. “Let’s collaborate!” said Saks after the performance; “OK” said Wells, “A research grant or an opera?” “Both,” Saks replied.

The research grant about state variations in use of physical restraints in psychiatric hospitals was not funded; but the opera is now completed. The opera is based on a period of hospitalization in New Haven when Dr. Saks was in law school. Several different hospitalizations in different institutions with different attending physicians were consolidated into one episode to simplify the story. While largely based on the book, some scenes, particularly those about providers, are fictionalized, based in part of experiences of Wells as a medical student and psychiatry resident during roughly the same period as Saks’ New Haven hospitalizations. The opera uses portions of the poem by William Butler Yeats of the same title, a quotation from Aristotle, and paraphrases and adapts portions of the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, as the real-life Saks survived one of her terrifying experiences of hours in restraints by yelling the theme that opens this symphony.

The opera is about a significant step in the road to recovery after Saks learned early in her life that she had a severe and persistent form of mental illness, paranoid schizophrenia. Although she struggled for years with acceptance of the diagnosis and alternatively accepted and resisted medications, she eventually learned that a combination of medication and psychoanalysis helped her maintain her coping and live a rewarding life. She has lead a brilliant career and maintained a happy and loving marriage, and enjoys many friends and colleagues. The opera is not about all of those successes. This opera, is about the first step: a turning point for a young woman facing overwhelming odds of succumbing to a devastating illness, who decides to do her best to live her life fully and ends up graduating from Yale Law School and developing a lasting friendship.


To stream the opera in its entirety, visit:



Jamie Chamberlin: Law Student Elyn Saks

Rebecca Sjöwall: Professor Elyn Saks
Danielle Marcelle Bond: Lady of the Charts
Abdiel Gonzalez: Dr. Kerrigan
Jon Lee Keenan: Psychiatric Resident
Tim Gonzales: Dr. White
Cale Olson: Steve Behnke
Jennifer Wallace: Mrs. Saks
Steve Pence: Mr. Saks
Babatunde Akinboboye: Jefferson
Joseph Lopez: Rebel
Julia Aks: Val
Daniel Charleston: Eric
Kevin Dalbey: James

Babatunde Akinboboye
Julia Aks
Elizabeth Anderson
Sarah Beaty
Aleta Braxton
Christina Bristow
Daniel Charleston
Kevin Dalbey
Tim Gonzales
Joseph Lopez
Jennifer Miller
Cale Olson
Jessica Rau

Kenneth Wells: Producer
Elizabeth Lizaola: Co-Producer
Joseph Mango: Co-Producer
Stephen Karr: Conductor
Brendan Hartnett: Director

Brad Smith: Assistant Conductor
Rowan Smith: Stage Manager
Phillip Powers: Lighting Designer
Sheiva Khalily: Projection Designer
Maggie Green: Costume Designer