It's not too hard to see the point being made about in Philip Glass's new opera based on the last days of Walt Disney. The irony is hammered home repeatedly and with no great subtlety in either the libretto or the musical arrangements. Disney's animation and the safe family-friendly ideals they espouse may be revered by generations of children and their parents, but those values are derived from a rather more flawed human individual. An old-fashioned, small-town country-boy with Republican ideals, intolerant of progress, race equality or union activity, Walt Disney is depicted in The Perfect American as a megalomaniac who not only took the credit for the hard work and talent of others, but he treated them appallingly as well. So he wasn't a nice guy. Why make an opera about him?
Well, if Walt Disney and his works are held up as being the epitome of "The Perfect American", even ironically, then there might be some merit in exploring prevailing bigoted attitudes and intolerance in the USA, but there's little evidence of that here. It doesn't help that Rudy Wurlitzer's libretto is filled with repetitive, expositional and declamatory dialogue that attempts to find significance in banalities. Walt's vision for America is determined by his own small-town upbringing ("Everything that I've become has its roots in Marceline") and that vision is defined as little more than "a magical place where dreams and miracles come true". Elsewhere, Walt's nature and achievements are summed up in snappy mottos ("Never say die!"), common clichés (Disney and his creations being "more famous than Santa" and "more recognisable than Jesus") and dull observations ("That's what he does, spares everyone the worst").
There is some attempt to find a less literal approach in the consideration of notions of immortality, but the observations are similarly trite. Walt expresses his desire to a nurse at the hospital to be cyrogenically frozen so that he can be revived in the future, and hubristically compares his cartoons to Greek gods, believing that his work and his beliefs in good conservative American values will "live forever". A little more colour is added when Walt is contrasted with Andy Warhol, who was born in the same year, or in a sequence where Walt has a conversation with a reanimated robot of Abraham Lincoln, but even there, it seems like just thrown in as an opportunity to allow Disney to express some pretty distasteful views on the abolition of slavery leading to the degradation of traditional American values. The latter sequences at least allow director Phelim McDermott and designer Dan Potra a bit more freedom to experiment with the staging which, even without having recourse any actual representations of Disney characters, is impressive and colourful throughout.
The cast and performances are also exceptionally good. Despite the deficiencies of the libretto, Christopher Purves and the rest of the cast (in particular Zachary James as Abe Lincoln and Rosie Lomas as Lucy/Josh) manage to inject some personality into their characters and even some sense of melody into the singing. The musical score however is mostly lifeless orchestration of bland repetition, deadened even further by an inordinate amount of tapping percussion. It lacks any real dynamic or variety in tempo and has no sense of a distinct dramatic character or expression for the work. It's a long way from Glass at his most original and operatic best in his early Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha or Akhnaten portrait operas, but Glass has shown himself in more recent times to still be creatively inspired when the subject (Kepler) or the source (Kafka, Cocteau) are worthy. Walt Disney and The Perfect American just don't seem to fire the composer's imagination this time.
On Blu-ray and in High Definition, the recording of the opera during its world premiere run in the Teatro Real in Madrid at least looks terrific. The staging is impressive and it's well filmed, the HD image capturing the wonderful colour and lighting of the production. The audio tracks also give a clear presentation of the music and the singing both in the stereo (LPCM 2.0) and surround options (DTS HD Master Audio 5.1). Other than a Cast Gallery, there are no extra features on the BD, but there is an essay and a synopsis in the enclosed booklet. Subtitles are in English, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Korean.
Glass became famous after his opera Einstein on the Beach became popular in Europe,and at the Met in 1976. In this opera he broke the rules with no plot,but a poetic take on the life and times of Einstein. In 1980 the premiere of Gandhi inspired opera Satyagraha took place,sung in Sanskrit,adapted from the Bhagavad Gita in traditional opera form. Followed in 1984 by Akhnaten,the ancient Egyptian Pharaoh, who created Aton-the sun God.This opera is sung in Ancient languages-Akkadian and Hebrew. The idea of the Trilogy according to Glass,is that the World can be altered by the power of thought.Glass through the choice of his libretto's which he has input,has always something to say about the human condition in his 26 operas;for he has a social conscience. He broke away from the hardcore minimalist music theatre of the 1960's and 70's and explored a wide range of dramatic and musical options.Also,he has been accused of repeating himself and note spinning like Richard Strauss,who never did. These individuals always refer back to his most popular operas,or his early works-see Glass box,(read my review). Generally, some of Glass's later works do come in for some criticism,but this is par for the course for any artist.This 25th opera about Walt Disney,is as the publicity states"One of Glass's very best operas".
Beecham once stated"the public loves a tune". Glass gives you plenty of tunes through his updated version of minimalism,pushing this opera forward,with its driven beat;sometimes slowing,from which comes a melody of extreme beauty.Act 2 has some of the most beautiful melodies that Glass has written,actually making you sympathetic towards this tortured fraud of a Man. Disney was right wing and an intolerant employer,who takes the creative ideas of others. The action takes place in 1966. Set on a stage,beginning with Disney on his death bed,via scenery which seems drawn. There are no walking Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Snow White in fluffy outfits,except a nurse whose pet name is Snow white.The drawn outline of the duck glides across the backdrop.Outlines of a house,beginnings of cartoons are like films projected onto a screen.The quick switches are between Walt's death bed,his office with his slaves the artists creating the cartoons,the first Disneyland and a visit to his childhood in Marceline,Missouri."For Roy(brother) and Walt nothing has changed"is sung by Dantine. Roy sings" country boys hiding behind a mouse and a duck".Walt hopes Reagan will become President of the USA and put the alternatives in their place. Well,Reagan did,and his views on deregulation,small government and let the market rip;has created economic rationalism which is indirectly responsible for the Wall Street crash.Also, Disneyland has become a symbol for all that is kitsch and suburban.
Andy Warhol appears at the beginning of Act 2. An icon of the 1960's counter culture,he was in my opinion,as an artist, another fraud like Disney.I loathed him,for he was superficial. He created Campbell Cans,which represented the problems with consumerism;big deal.He lived off the brilliance of true creative beings.Unconsciously,Glass and his librettist have this about right.Lincoln appear's at the end of Act 1,representing equal rights and Freedom,which Disney has called into question.Disney hates to hear the word death. Glass has suggested that this opera is about a common Man who despite his failings,is able to articulate ideas of impermanence,eternity and the nature of art.For Disney wants to be frozen and brought back to life eventually,such is his ego.He is cremated. Dantine represents the artists who created the cartoons.As he sings, "Walt you are just an moderately successful CEO,nothing more then that"."I created all this and you stare through me and do not recognise me.You fired me for attempting to start a Union".A beautiful theme comes out of this disagreement.
What Glass is doing, is showing the great American dream of small town man making good; in otherwords rich. He shows it to be shallow,without meaning and selfish.The ideas of the artist in this opera are taken by Disney and enables him to spread his name throughout the world.As Glass brings Reagan into the opera and the radical ideas of the Alternative movement,Glass obviously is politically to the humanitarian left. Showing that USA small town values as symbolised by Disney's attachment to Marceline,Missouri,is spread throughout the world.In otherwords,Glass is using this as a disguise for American imperialism and globialisation. Also, the Wall Street mentality of Greed is good,which brought about the collapse of the ecconomic market. So this opera has many meanings.Disney and his life,Glass's early years as a musician,plus subtle digs at the great American dream and its impact on the world. Get hold of 'Glass a portrait of Phillip in twelve parts',by Scott Hicks director of Shine.How anyone cannot get what Glass is about in this opera is beyond me. In Australia,we have just elected the most right wing government since the 1960's,led by a climate warming skeptic called Abbott.I did'nt think any of them existed,but they do.His financial advisor thinks its a myth.Shades of the American Tea party.The ousted Labour party sacked two Prime Ministers in three years and brought the first one back.So in desperation the Australians voted to go back to the past with the Liberals.I am a Green so do not blame me.
Dennis Russell Davies is the conductor who gets the music just right. He has conducted many of Glass's Premiere's and is Glass's right hand man.Orchestra sinfonica of Madrid.The improbable skills ensemble.Set and costumes Dan Potra.Very well thought out.Costumes of the period. Some seem of the 1930's. Walt Disney Christopher Purves is ideal in the part and brings the Man alive. Roy Disney,David Pittsinger,a baritone,is the perfect foil for Walt. Dantine-pockets full of papers,Donald Kaasch is the artist to a tee.Hazel George,Janis Kelly-nurse,Walt calls Snow White is a soprano and very sympathetic.Lilian Disney Walts wife Brit Marie McLaughlin. At the end,Glass is brought on to the stage.One of the crowning events of Mr Glass's 75th Birthday. Because he is one of the few people I admire so much,I shall give you a pen picture of his life and views after this review is over.Our belief systems are so similar.Please give this a go,if you have a questioning mind.This is one of Glass's best opera's. You would say that,you might say,because you admire Glass.In reviewing I am objective.
Bluray picture very good,so is the sound. ALL REGIONS. LPCM Stereo. DTS HD Master audio. Subtitles. English.(singing is very easy to understand.) French. German. Spanish. Japanese. Korean.1080i HD. 16.9 bluray disc. Each Act two hours.
A HOMAGE TO PHIL: Glass was born in 1937 in Baltimore,where his father owned a record store. He began formal Violin studes at six,then at 15 he attended Chicago University,where he received a BA in Philosophy. He then moved to New York to study at the Julliard School and later with Milhaud at Aspen,Colorado. In 1964 he disowned everything he had written and travelled to Europe,studying counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger.who had been a pupil of Faure. In 1965 he worked with Ravi Shankar,the great Indian Sitar player and Alla Rakha,the tabla player.Glass and his first wife began travelling: to North Africa, Morocco and Central Asia,spending a year travelling around India(as I once did years ago.)They witnessed theatre in the South. Ashrams in the North,dancers and musicians every where. He now became Glass the Minimalist. However,this move caused outrage amongest the serial fans,for this music addressed an ever more rarefied audience of connoisseurs,which probably explains the permanent grudge the intelligensia of modern music seems to bear him. Glass feels that serialism dominated his whole generation.Minimalist music was like a breath of fresh air. Thus,Glass does show that in his opera's and other music,that it is possible to be tuneful.
The composer apllied the meditative principles of Indian practice to his own composing. The art of music making as Glass saw it,was no longer to provide variety and instruction,but to steer the listener in the direction of the river of time. However,critics think his music is the constant repetition of a series of uniform phrases. But as Glass himself states in the film'Looking Glass'"some conductors thought I repeat myself,and it would be easy to conduct,and found I usually do not,and they are lost".
In 1968 he founded the Philip Glass Ensemble. During this period he supported himself by working as a plumber and driving a Taxi."The music establishment thought I was crazy and foundation support was out of the question.In the States,the view is an artist should support themselves and if they are any good they will succeed".His group worked for free,but his reputation grew and grew,until Einstein on the Beach,which made him famous.His fame which took Glass by surprise,enabled him to help younger composers. Also,he became a cult figure,and singers such as David Bowie admired him.According to Tim Page,'an interim report'-Glass box,the composer is the first to win a multi-generational audience in the opera house,the concert hall,the dance world,in film and in popular music simultaneously. Glass states" I've been called a minimalist composer for more then 30 years,and while I have never really agreed with the description,I've gotten used to it. But what I really am-and increasingly so is a universalist composer. I'm interested in all kinds of music,and sooner or later most of the musics find their way into my own composition"
References: Batta(Ed Opera.2005.Konemann. Booklet Glassbox(2008) Looking Glass.Hicks-DVD Glass a portrait in 12 parts. Holden,A.(ed)The Penguin guide to classical music.1995.Viking. Sadie,S. The Grove book of Operas.Oxford uni Press.