The Perfect American
Giving his all: Purves as Walt Disney in Madrid
© Javier del Real 2013
In 2008, during his term as general-director-in-waiting at New York City Opera, Gerard Mortier commissioned Philip Glass to write a new opera based on Peter Stephan Jungk's 2001 novel Der König von Amerika (The Perfect American). When his contract with NYCO was put aside by mutual consent, Mortier took the project to his new artistic berth, Madrid's Teatro Real, which coproduced the new piece with English National Opera.
Judging by the January 22 premiere performance in Madrid, it is easy to conclude that the "natural" milieu for Glass's Perfect American would be a top American theater. The Perfect American is as American as an opera can be, and the role that Walt Disney (1901–66) played in the definition of twentieth-century popular culture in the U.S. is at the center of the story. The Disney dream is confronted here with American icons of the past (the end of Act I has Disney quarrel with a robot of Abraham Lincoln) and the future (in Act II, Andy Warhol storms into his studio to declare his love for Disney and all things American).
The novel is a fierce demythologizing of Disney, who is depicted in the last months of his life as a racist, far-right, ignorant, populist bigot. The libretto for Glass's opera — by veteran novelist, playwright and scriptwriter Rudy Wurlitzer, who worked with Glass on his chamber opera In the Penal Colony (2000) — maintains the Disney character as a "negative" force but somewhat humanizes the monster of Jungk's book.
The book is narrated by the Austrian cartoonist and composite artist Wilhelm Dantine and centers on the confrontation between him and Disney. Dantine, a Disney employee, has helped to create a union — anathema for the fiercely anti-Communist Disney — and gets sacked. When his former boss is dying, Dantine returns to Disney, seeking respect, recognition and money. Dantine represents the thousands of anonymous artists who were used to create the brilliant and wildly successful Disney animated films and then treated as if they were garbage. Dantine poses the question of who is the creator in such a collective endeavor as animated movies. Disney says he wished he could use machines instead of workers. In the opera, the character of Dantine, played with brio and sung with "character tenor" intent by Donald Kaasch, is toned down: here, Dantine is led away from the dying Disney after venting his anger and then comes back to pay his respects to the dead tycoon.
Nobody really stands up to the great man. Disney's most meaningful conversations come during his final stay at the hospital, when he is dying of cancer. A child, Josh, beautifully sung by light soprano Rosie Lomas, expresses the love and glorification of children everywhere for their hero.
The complicated character of Walt Disney comes to life in this thoughtful, brilliantly executed opera. There are racist and anti-union rants, but the piece also acknowledges the man's nostalgia for his childhood and his rare ability to touch the imaginations of children. The emotional center of the piece is Disney's connection to his boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri. The pastoral peace and innocence of Marceline constitute the world Disney used as the model for Disneyland.
Glass's score is a continuation of his minimalist searches. Among its weak moments are the long, meandering recitatives — more rhetorical than narrative — in which all characters sing in a similar monochrome parlando. Among The Perfect American's many virtues are a masterful use of orchestration, innovative percussion writing and some passages of Romantic string playing, a welcome change from the propulsive clusters of notes that are often regarded as a Glass trademark.
The Teatro Real orchestra played with precision and finesse under the baton of Glass specialist Dennis Russell Davies. The real star of the night was the highly creative production by Improbable Skills Ensemble and director Phelim McDermott, who explained in a press conference that he didn't even try asking for the rights to use Disney images, due to the libretto's unapologetically negative take on the title character. The only iconic art used is the multicolor pop portrait of Disney by Warhol.
The characters move in and around a central elevation, which represents Disney's bed, his laboratory, his house and finally his catafalque. A river of moving, twisting and falling white sheets projects drawings in the making. They are not anything recognizably Disney, rather work-in-progress elaborations on a darker, more sinister world of images. The moving drawings are the key dynamic element in the production.
Baritone Christopher Purves gave his all as Walt. He almost never left the stage, and he created an egotistic yet vulnerable villain. Bass-baritone David Pittsinger used his elegant demeanor and deep, creamy voice to embody that rock of common sense, Walt's brother Roy Disney. Among the others, Janis Kelly excelled as Disney's very close nurse, and bass Zachary James provided the gravitas and perfectly executed choreography of the Audio-Animatronic robot of Abraham Lincoln.
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