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Philip Glass - The Perfect American, World Premiere in Madrid

Tuesday, 29 January 2013 , ora 8.59
'During his lifetime he seems to have been the most famous and beloved American. But his magic kingdom was not always the happiest place on Earth. Disney had his own torments and he was also known due to his intolerance for trade unions, blacks and Jews. These are truths pertaining to the 21st century Disney legend and, as such, they are part of the new opera composed by Philip Glass and entitled The Perfect American. The work evokes the myth, the artist and the man. The tension results from the contrast between the America that formed Walt Disney and the America he formed for the rest of us' - says the music critic Mark Swed in his article Walt Disney was hardly a perfect American, published in the Los Angeles Times, a day after the world premiere of the opera, on the stage of Teatro Real in Madrid, on Tuesday, 22nd January, 2013.

The project The Perfect American began in the United States in 2008, when Gerard Mortier commissioned this opera to the composer Philip Glass on behalf of the New York City Opera. When the financing was cut, it was the same Mortier who transferred the project to Madrid, on the stage of Teatro Real, whose director he became in September 2010. It premiered on 22nd January, 2013.

This is what the 75-year old Glass confesses about his 24th opera, The Perfect American: 'The story of the last days of Walt Disney, an American symbol and the creator of what may be considered as the most pervasive fantasy world - Fantasialand - ever imagined by a human mind, is surprisingly complex and moving. But, given the character, how could it have been any different?! The pulse of his life had to be the pulse of our American culture. And, like other aspects of life here, it's unimaginable, alarming and truly frightening.'

A fictionalized account of reality

The libretto of the opera is based on Peter Stephan Jungk's novel, a fictionalized account of reality: a former employee of the great film producer, the Austrian Wilhelm Dantine, disgruntled and hating his former employer, tells the incidents in the dreams/cartoons factory, where he had tried to start a union in order to improve working conditions. His story leaves clear the fact that Disney was a ruthless man who had ruined lives and had taken credit for the talent and merits of his many employees.

Philip Glass/Peter Stephan Jungk bring to our attention a Disney whose entire career was actually a spectacular effort to overcome his demons. To this purpose, he created a fantasy land where there is no death, no threat, no blood. But in his dying, Disney must confront his demons and he does it as an artist and with the force of one.

In the prologue, on a hospital bed, the dying Disney is delirious. In one of the many flashbacks, Lucy, a neighbour girl, shows up at his Holmby Hills home in an owl costume, scaring him to death. The image of Lucy as an owl is Disney's last vision. The patient is carefully tended by a nurse called Snow White.

Jumping backward and forward in time

The first act presents the public Disney. With his brother and partner, Roy, Walt returns to the small Midwest town where he grew up and where he was worshipped for having donated a swimming pool to his fellow-citizens. The main street of the town became the model for Disneyland's Main Street. The action of the opera continuously jumps backward and forward in time and to different places, but always showing Disney in command. Then, on his hospital bed, the artist tries to defy death, fascinated by the new theories according to which freezing the human body can preserve life (Actually, because Disney's body was never found, there was a legend that he might be frozen, somewhere in the abyss of Disneyland).

In his office at the Burbank studios, Walt and Roy talk about a successful future. In the act's final scene, Disney goes to Anaheim in the middle of the night to help repair the animatronic Disneyland Lincoln who has been malfunctioning and attacking members of the audience. The artist gets into an argument about blacks with the robot, Lincoln gets angry and he becomes aggressive again.

The second act depicts a completely different Walt Disney, seen from the inner perspective as a weak man and insecure artist. Andy Warhol, the initiator of the pop-art movement in the '60s, pays Disney a surprise visit to tell him how much he appreciates and loves his work. Dantine shows up and accuses Disney of exploiting his workers, taking credit for their merits, while he himself has little artistic talent.

In the last scene Disney compares himself to Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Abraham Lincoln and says that Ronald Reagan will become president if he follows his advice. The end is preceded by a conversation between the man dying from cancer and a child called Josh, who voices the love with which children all around the world watch their favourite cartoons, Walt Disney's creations.

A music with repetitive structures, but harmonically enriched

The American composer Philip Glass has had a great influence upon the music of the 20th century. A lot has been said and written for and against his minimalist style, which was also embraced by other major names, such as La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Steve Reich. However, when talking about himself, the composer distances from them, describing himself as a creator of music with repetitive structures instead. His latest opera follows the same line, but the language is much enriched harmonically, able to support sonorously the actions, situations and thoughts of the characters.

Silent agreement from the Walt Disney Studios

Disney Studios have tried to oppose this project, but the work had already been commissioned to the composer. The libretto was sent, according to the rules, for consideration, but there was no response from Disney Studios. Their silence was considered a silent agreement. The British director Phelim McDermott is responsible for the successful production of Satyagraha, five years ago. The opera composed by Philip Glass is inspired from Mahatma Gandhi's life. For The Perfect American, the director's task was extremely difficult, as strict rules didn't allow him to use on stage any Disney character without a special approval; thus, he was forced to evoke the life of the great creator without Minnie, Donald, Pluto, Goofy or Mickey Mouse…What he was left with was the possibility of evoking on stage, as in a surrealist film populated by monsters, the last days of a dying man, tortured by his own fears.

Movement - the main element of the director's vision

The set and costumes on the stage of Teatro Real are designed by the Romanian artist Dan Potra (born in Timisoara in 1979). Dan Potra has recently settled in England, coming from Australia. His name is connected with impressive productions of the lyric stage, but also with great artistic events at the Sydney Olympic Games (2000) or Beyoncé's concert in Ukraine. The topic and action inspired again the Romanian designer for a huge production, with vivid colours and 59 video projections. Everything revolves around a central elevation which represents Disney's bed, then his lab, his home and, at the end, his catafalque. 'Movement flows like a river, without stopping; movement is the main element of the director's vision, to which the set and costumes add the sinister of a hallucinating, dark and threatening world.' (Roberto Herrscher in Opera News)

The musical director is Dennis Russell Davies, an expert on Philip Glass' works that he has been playing and conducting for more than 30 years. Many of Glass' first auditions were performed by the pianist and conductor Dennis Russell Davies. In the latest premiere under his baton, the music of the American composer was interpreted with 'precision and finesse.' (Roberto Herrscher in Opera News)

The cast includes Christopher Purves (Walt Disney), David Pittsinger (Roy), Janis Kelly (Hazel George), Marie McLaughlin (Lillian Disney), Sarah Tynan (Sharon), Nazan Friket (Lucy) and John Easterlin (Andy Warhol).


The media announce the success, emphasizing the fact that, despite the topic and the weird production, there was not a single cry of protest from among the audience (El Pais).

The performance is a co-production with the English National Opera in London. There will be six more performances in Madrid, until 6th February. In June, the opera will be presented nine times by the English National Opera on the London Coliseum stage, in St. Martin's Lane.

Cristina Sârbu
Translated by Mihaela Olinescu and Elena Daniela Radu
MTTLC, Bucharest University