The Perfect American – Walt Disney as Megalomaniac.

Richard S. Ginell - From Out of the The WestBy Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West

I’ve been watching a live telecast on the computer today from Madrid – courtesy of, the invaluable C-SPAN of classical music – of Philip Glass’s new opera The Perfect American, which has placed his name temporarily front and center in the mass media.  Mind you, this isn’t because it is a Glass opera. Rather, it is because it is an opera about Walt Disney – and not a flattering one.

Throughout the opera’s 104 minutes, we see the buccaneering, hard-driving megalomaniac that first surfaced in posthumous biographies. We see an anti-black reactionary who censors his malfunctioning audio-animatronic Abe Lincoln action figure. We see an anti-union, self-aggrandizing boss who takes all the credit for his employees’s hard work and creativity. We see a compulsive chain-smoker who fears death yet seems to have only himself to blame for his premature demise at 65 from lung cancer in 1966.  An autocrat who does not earn any sympathy from us, but somehow manages to get it from many of the characters onstage.

I’m not one to defend the practices of the Disney Corporation then or now – nor its artifacts of popular culture that litter the American landscape. Nor do I dispute the flaws that this portrait reveals, nor would I want to see the benign Uncle Walt whom most of the world remembers from TV’s Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. What I do miss is the visionary side of Walt Disney in his last years, the side that was fascinated by the possibilities of technology and its potential for making life better for everyone on the planet.  This was the Disney who dreamed up EPCOT, which was originally supposed to be an acronym for Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow, a working city that would be a living laboratory where new technologies would be tested, discarded, or put into use as an example for others to follow and develop.  The EPCOT that exists now is essentially just a theme park, the original plans discarded after Walt’s death by the bean counters on the Disney board.

Combining the visionary Walt with the monstrous Walt would have made this a more complex and more fascinating opera – and a more disturbing one as the audience would have been asked to contemplate the coexistence of such contradictory qualities, or figure out what unites them (apparently this was part of the creators’ intentions, but it doesn’t extend much beyond Disney’s cartoon breakthroughs). It might have inspired an even more compelling score from Glass, though this is one of his better ones, with some striking percussive touches (especially at the beginning) and new (for him) harmonic ideas along with the usual two-note minor-key vamping.

There is speculation that The Perfect American might be headed for Los Angeles, which is Disney Central – and I’ll bet it will sell out the house on Disney’s name alone. Just imagine the irony of this unflattering portrait playing at the Chandler Pavilion right across the street from none other than Walt Disney Concert Hall. Or how about a concert version in Disney Hall itself!  Make way for the picketers.


Update; Jan. 2014:  For those who missed the telecast, this production of The Perfect American has been released on DVD (Opus Arte) – and upon further viewing, the piece holds up quite well. One can now admire the striking, fluidly-shifting backgrounds as seen in HD on the home flat screen, as well as the excellent diction of the cast  (particularly baritone Christopher Purvis’s Walt Disney) that eliminates the need for supertitles. What I thought about the limitations of the portrait of Disney still stands, yet I can see myself coming back again and again to this opera, using imagination to fill in the blanks now that we know where the boundaries are.

At this writing, there have been no further developments as to whether Los Angeles will see a production – and frankly, given the grip that Disney has on this company town and on millions of Disney worshippers, I’d be surprised if it comes downtown.  I would be more likely to bet that a smaller, more radical, fearless company like Long Beach Opera would be willing to take it on.