The opera’s libretto, by Rudy Wurlitzer, is based on a biography of Disney by Peter Stephen Jungk. This fact may have flashed warning lights for the Walt Disney Company, who initially signaled their disapproval of the project, and remained silent when confronted with the script. Even Glass is reputed to have had his doubts, but finally went ahead — with, it seems to me, spectacular results.
The great strength of this opera lies in its orchestral music. The vocal lines, by contrast, are more problematic — a kind of declaiming style dominates, even when the accompaniment is full of ravishing rhythms and melodies.
Disney died in 1966 of lung cancer, and he’s seen as hospitalized for this disease throughout the opera, albeit often resuming his confident pose, and regular outdoor dress, for long periods. One particularly effective device is that he’s given a fellow patient, a boy suffering from a fractured coccyx. This character brings out the best in Disney, whose creations were after all meant to appeal especially to children, and Glass’s music during their scenes is especially under-stated and quietly effective.
Disney always felt his roots were in the rural world of Marceline, Missouri, even though his family only spent four years there. And the opera ends with praise for a man in whose work blue was bluer than blue, and green greener than green. He created dream worlds of undiluted happiness, in other words.
Philip Glass’s opera about him is probably a masterpiece. This, however, isn’t to say that The Perfect American is likely to return to the stage again and again like the master works of Mozart, Verdi, Wagner of Puccini. It will more likely have a limited stage life, being performed round the world and then effectively put into storage.
It’s interesting to compare it to other modern operas, as well as to Glass’s earlier works for the stage. Glass is said to have now written 25 operas, but most are long forgotten. Among the better-known ones, Satyagraha, despite having a text that’s entirely in Sanskrit, has received considerable acclaim, and was revived by New York’s Metropolitan Opera last year with great success. Einstein on the Beach has also been recently revived.
Both these are essentially non-realist stage rituals, with large amounts of repetition and formalized stage movement. The Perfect American, by contrast, is basically naturalistic, and has more in common with John Adams’s operas such as Doctor Atomic, The Death of Klinghoffe and Nixon in China.
What all these works have in common, however, is that they’re successful modern pieces dealing with contemporary subjects. Collectively they demonstrate that opera, far from being an obsolete art form, is, thanks to talents like Adams and Glass, forging confidently ahead into the 21st century.