Psychiatrist Kenneth Wells has written a documentary disguised as an opera. It's not his first opera—or even his first opera about mental health—but it's his first based on an actual research study.
To develop Veteran Journeys, Wells drew on Partners in Care, a 10-year RAND-UCLA study (the psychiatrist is affiliated with both) that was one of the first to use a multisite collaborative primary care approach to treat veterans and other adults experiencing depression. Wells, who is both a librettist and composer, used transcripts and recordings of interviews with veterans to create a sense of realism and develop composite characters. And for the therapist roles, he drew on his own experiences and those of family members in medicine.
“The interviews were very rich, so it's this huge resource. And people told fascinating stories,” Wells said. With permission from Veterans Affairs, homeless veterans encamped at the West Los Angeles VA hospital helped Wells finesse the lyrics and other elements to make the stories more true to life.
Because the characters were composites of real-life research participants, Veteran Journeys is likely the first opera ever to require Human Subjects Protection—a process used to ensure anonymity for participants in research studies.
The opera combines science and sopranos in other ways, too. A week before the first performance in June 2021, Wells held a conference on veteran mental health. And before and after the performance, the audience took a survey that Wells will use to study whether the arts can influence people's understanding and willingness to help address social welfare issues.
What does he hope to accomplish with the opera? “Public engagement around the needs of veterans. Promotion of respect and also acknowledgment of the contributions of providers. And a sense of hope for families. … I think that's an important message in today's world.”
— Melissa Bauman
Sources: Kenneth Wells; UCLA Art/Sci Center “Particles” vlog and archives; hss.semel.ucla.edu/veteranjourneys