Philip Glass’s The Perfect American

Philip Glass’s new opera The Perfect American is still available for viewing, free on medici.tv.  The world premiere production was presented by Teatro Real in Madrid.

As always I am willing to go the extra mile as a viewer and advocate of an ambitious project such as this one.  I did not hear a great deal in response (critical opinion one way or another), possibly because it is not easy to decode, and therefore may be misread. Maybe it’s still early, maybe i move in the wrong circles to know.

This is a fictionalized biographical opera about Walt Disney’s last days as he’s dying of lung cancer.  Where Akhnaten, Einstein or Gandhi are titans who lend themselves easily to abstract portrayal in opera, Disney is another matter entirely, at least as seen in this case.  In the style of the portrait operas (the three icons named above) we needn’t worry too much about details of daily life, when employing such an abstracted style that lends itself to symbolic readings.

The Perfect American (click for further information, to be presented by the English National Opera in June)

But The Perfect American is to my ear a completely different direction for the composer, an opera whose libretto shows a closer resemblance to normal human dialogue than any previous Glass opera.  While there may have been incidents of the cartoonist’s life that could lend themselves to the same sort of treatment as what we say in the portrait operas, that’s not at all what Glass attempted this time.  While the composer may just now have reached 75 years old, like other great composers in their maturity such as Verdi or Wagner, Glass is still experimenting with new sounds & dramaturgical structures.  Based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel, Libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer, this co-production between Teatro Madrid and the English National Opera (who will stage the opera in June) is directed by Phelim Mc Dermott who directed the co-production of Satyagraha with the Metropolitan, and conducted by Dennis Russell Davies.

It’s an opera with several big moments.

  • We hear of Walt’s famous wish to be cryogenically preserved, setting up the ending
  • We see the animatronic Abraham Lincoln, the ultimate ubermarionette; it (not he) is a big machine played by a man, that keeps breaking down, with lots of wires & tubes coming out of his back.  Walt and the machine debate rather sadly, until Disney (who gets the last word) proclaims “your views no longer tally with mine”.
  • Walt is hounded by Wilhelm Dantine, who debates the ownership of the intellectual property of the Disney brand.
  • Walt complains at least twice that his name is no longer his own, that it belongs to the company, not to him.
  • Disney sometimes confuses illusion with reality, something we’re explicitly told, but see several times, such as the debate with the fake Lincoln that concludes the first Act.

I found myself fighting the work, possibly because I don’t believe nor like the version of Walt Disney in this opera, or at least this story doesn’t square with what I saw unfolding in the media before my eyes as i grew up.  The Walt Disney I remember as a child—a figure I saw many times on Sunday night television—was an unsophisticated product of small-town America –just as the opera would have it—who loved animals and nature.  That’s about all of the Walt I knew who makes it into the opera.

We see both Walt & his brother Roy.  This Roy seems much gentler than capitalistic Walt, who comes across as a booster of Ronald Reagan and his conservative agenda.  Sorry, this is hard for me to believe, as I recall that Roy was the organizational wizard who rescued the company, that hadn’t done so well with Disneyland, but came into its own after Roy came up with Disneyworld & Epcot.  Still, if Wilhelm Dantine were pursuing Roy, if Roy were the actual conservative, then the story would lose its focus.  Christopher Purves, whom I reviewed a few days ago in Written on Skin, is a strong Walt Disney, surely a stronger figure perhaps than I expected or wanted to see, even if it likely squares with Jungk’s novel and is a marvelous creation all the same.

At times we hear a slightly jazzy sound to the orchestral texture, even if we’re still encountering the usual repeated notes and figures we’ve heard in many other Glass compositions.  Where Glass is known for abrupt endings to passages, we hear something more conventional, as the music sometimes fades away, perhaps a reflection of the psychology of the dying Disney’s subjectivity.  Aside from this, however, I don’t see significant form in this work.  Glass seems to have taken the next step, as The Perfect American resembles a film-score, the orchestra self-effacing, the singing almost superfluous to the work.  There is one effect that made me cringe, namely the use of a chorus that was largely unintelligible, reminding me of nothing so much as the sentimental choruses often concluding movies in the 1950s, especially those coming from the Walt Disney Studio.  It’s as though Glass were mocking Disney & the opera itself; if I knew what they were singing (even though sung in English they needed subtitles) I’d be in a better position to decode the ironies of these moments.  We’re no longer in the presence of art that is transcendent or particularly redemptive: not considering the way this Walt is portrayed.

Is Glass mocking the commercialism of art & its commodification, even laughing at himself –one of the richest and most successful composers who ever lived—when Disney is denounced as “nothing more than a moderately successful CEO”?  In the interest of giving Glass credit, and because I think Glass is nobody’s fool, I am inclined to think it’s possible.  By now Glass has no reason to put on airs, and every reason to be edgy, even in deconstructing his own fame.

The opera remains available online for awhile (I saw a webpage claiming the free streaming would continue for “two more months” as of mid-February).

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