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.
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.