The Perfect American, Philip Glass,Teatro Real de Madrid, Viewable on Medici.tv
“I’m more famous than Santa Claus!” proclaims Walt Disney in Philip Glass’s new opera, The Perfect American. “And Mickey Mouse and Snow White will live forever — like Wotan or Zeus or Jesus.”
The Perfect American has still to appear on DVD, but the world premiere production at the Teatro Real in Madrid can be seen on Medici.tv. This is a site where recent classical concerts and operas can be viewed for free for an initial period, after which they go into the archive and can only be seen by subscribers. At the time of writing The Perfect American can still be accessed by everyone with access to the Internet.
It’s about Disney’s last days, with his earlier life shown in extensive flashbacks. Two things need to be said at the start. First, the orchestral music is sublime, and a huge testament to the continuing brilliance of Glass as a composer. Second, this Spanish production is a visual tour-de-force, and is a great credit to a company that must surely have won the right to stage this premiere against considerable competition.
Philip Glass isn’t always given the credit that’s his due. In an interview last year on the BBC, the ever-interrupting journalist Stephen Sackur ended up offering Glass the proposition that his music was all the same. Nothing could be further from the truth, as this new opera demonstrates over and over again.
The Walt Disney Company withheld the rights to include any of Disney’s cartoon characters in the production. This may have proved all to the good in the long run, because the UK ensemble Improbable have as a result felt free to indulge their own imaginations instead. The result is a production full of creative effects.
For instance, the ghost of Abraham Lincoln (Zachary James) appears as a character. He’s presented as a manikin animated by wires and tubes. Disney himself (Christopher Purves), though in other respects the embodiment of right-wing capitalism, feels he and Lincoln are kindred spirits — each a country boy who came from, and then came to embody, the soul of America.
Disney feels he’s like a bee, fertilizing others with his ideas — in part a defense against accusations that he himself never put pencil to paper in the creation of his animations. One of the characters who voices this criticism in the opera is a former employee, Wilhelm Dantine (Donald Kaasch), who Disney sacked for trying to form a union. He keeps haunting the old man, ambling round his hospital bed, radical tracts sticking out of his pockets, and provoking from Disney anti-democratic outbursts.
Disney’s not even too sure about Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves. Referring to Martin Luther King and Eldridge Cleaver, he asks Lincoln “Is that what you had in mind when you abolished slavery?”
Andy Warhol (John Easterlin), “born the same year as Mickey Mouse”, appears too. He likes ordinary things, he sings, and never criticizes America. Both he and Disney are “as American as apple-pie.”
Disney’s wife Lillian (Marie McLaughlin) also features. Rows of animators constitute a chorus from time to time, and it’s mentioned at one point that 500 people worked on the creation of Snow White.
The production is directed by Phelim McDermott and the performance is conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.