Disney’s World: Perfect American, According To Glass

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Zeffin Quinn Hollis (Roy) and Justin Ryan (Walt), front, in Philip Glass’ ‘The Perfect American’ at Long Beach Opera.
(Production photos by Keith Ian Polakoff)

By Richard S. Ginell

LONG BEACH, Calif. —  In a (ahem) perfect world, Philip Glass’s 25th opera, The Perfect American, would be playing everywhere there is an opera house in America. After all, the central focus of the piece is a household name, Walt Disney, whose fame and influence spans several generations. You can’t raise a child in this country and avoid the Disney brand. And the subject alone would attract even those who don’t want to know about opera.

Justin Ryan as Walt and Rana Ebrahimi as Lucy.

Ah, but then in the imperfect real world, there are the long arms of the Walt Disney Company and family, one of whom, the late Diane Disney Miller (daughter of Walt), told the Los Angeles Times, “Nothing in this opera has any basis in truth whatsoever.”  Teatro Real Madrid gave the world premiere in 2013 (released on an Opus Arte DVD) after the ailing New York City Opera had to bow out; London’s English National Opera and Opera Queensland in Brisbane quickly followed up. But in America, no one was interested until small, brave, plucky Long Beach Opera stepped up and gave the U.S. premiere Sunday afternoon, Mar. 12.

That no other company wanted it surprised LBO’s general and artistic director Andreas Mitisek, but he scooped it up gladly and his company made a good case for this opera’s viability. Members of the Disney family were invited but, as far as LBO knows, none showed up Sunday. (When asked if Disney Miller ever saw an actual performance, Mitisek said he didn’t know.)

The Perfect American is based on a biographical novel by Peter Stephan Jungk, whose premise was an observation of the dying Walt Disney’s last three months on earth by a fictional character, a disgruntled animator/union organizer named Wilhelm Dantine. The model for Dantine may well have been Art Babbitt, an animator whose union activities led to him being fired by Disney, an action that set off the 1941 animators’ strike against the company. In the opera, Dantine’s role is reduced to that of an occasional walk-on provocateur, a figure from the past who accuses Disney various sins but ultimately weeps upon hearing about his passing.

A scene from Philip Glass’ ‘The Perfect American.’

The sensational aspects of The Perfect American – the depiction of beloved Uncle Walt ranting about hippies, Commies, and unions; promoting himself while ignoring the contributions of his employees; debating his audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln robot about race from the viewpoint of an old-line segregationist – are what made Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto a target of family complaints. A little research into various Disney biographies reveals that a lot of this stuff rings true, though, and some of Disney’s lines quote him almost verbatim.

One has to admire the moxie of Glass and Wurlitzer for risking the wrath of the powerful Walt Disney Company – and controversy often inspires the prolific Glass to create his best work. The Perfect American indeed is one of his better operas, wherein his brooding minor-key arpeggios, duplets, and repeat signs, now emboldened by his growing harmonic sophistication and flashes of exotic orchestration, suit the material quite well. The music becomes more eloquent and responsive to the emotions of the characters as the opera goes on, and as Glass expands his range, Disney himself reveals more, finally admitting to a young boy that, while he didn’t actually draw the cartoons, he inspired those who did like a bee flitting from one flower to another.

What we don’t see in this portrait – and it would have made the opera even better, I think – is the visionary Walt Disney in his final year, aside from an off-hand quote regretting that he should have bought more land surrounding Disneyland. It was a time when he channeled his energies toward dreaming up ideas for EPCOT – the original plan for an Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow, not the quasi-world’s fair/theme park that emerged in Florida long after his death. It would have been a working self-contained city in which new technologies could be introduced, tried out, and made available to others if they worked. Why not make the audience grapple with the contradiction between the idealistic dreamer with progressive ideas on how to make the world better vs. the stubborn reactionary at war with the 1960s? I’ll bet this would have inspired Glass to an even higher level than he reached in the existing piece. As it stands, the opera depicts Disney as being responsible for famous cartoon characters, the first full-length animated features, and not much else.

Walt Disney (Justin Ryan) and the malfunctioning Lincoln robot.

Rather than copy the original Madrid production, which takes place in an undefined Never-Never Land of sorts, director Kevin Newbury placed all the action in a hospital room as it might have looked in 1966, the year of Disney’s death from lung cancer. Behind the hospital beds is a screen marked off in white LED-tube squares, with a rectangular opening for the chorus lurking in the rear. The malfunctioning Lincoln robot is a shambles of sheet metal strips, wires, and a distorted head lying on a hospital bed. There are, of course – given the litigious nature of a company that rigorously enforces its copyrights – no overt Disney symbols, but there are a few sneaky references like the arrangement of three overhead surgical lights in the shape of a certain rodent whose initials are MM.

Baritone Justin Ryan made a dashing, energetic Walt Disney in his hospital PJs and robe, though his voice seemed to be stronger as the character weakens near the end. Zeffin Quinn Hollis calmly sang the part of Roy Disney, sounding very much like the brother of Ryan’s Walt at times; he also stepped in for the ailing Jason Switzer as the voice of the Lincoln robot, though the onstage effect was like that of Roy Disney acting as ventriloquist. Jamie Chamberlin sang the role of Hazel George, the Disney studio nurse, with a fluttery soprano, tossing in some Cunegonde-like touches – she sang Cunegonde in LBO’s Candide last year. Soprano Suzan Hanson threw herself emotionally into the role of Walt’s wife Lillian, and tenor Scott Ramsay sang Dantine clearly.  Kyle Erdos-Knapp as Andy Warhol made a comic cameo – one master self-promoter seeking out another.

Mitisek himself conducted the pit orchestra, doing his best to make the score project into the stubbornly earthbound acoustics of the vast Long Beach Terrace Theater. After one more Long Beach performance on Mar. 18, he’ll take it to his other company, Chicago Opera Theater, on Apr. 22 and 30 (Newbury meanwhile will direct the world premiere of an opera about another iconic American innovator, Steve Jobs, at Santa Fe Opera July 22). And then, hopefully, other companies will wake up, shake off their fears, and stamp this fascinating opera into the repertoire.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.

Date posted: March 15, 2017

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