The Perfect American, English National Opera, London Coliseum, June 2013Posted on 2 June 2013
The scenes in this new Philip Glass opera are set mainly in Southern California where Walt Disney lived, worked and died, but there is an early scene in Marceline, Missouri where he spent his childhood. Or did he? Certainly he looked back on his four or five years in Marceline as giving him everything, but this self-made man who presided over an army of illustrators and story tellers in California was born in Chicago, and for a brief period attended high school and the Art Institute there after living in Missouri and Kansas City. Yet Marceline was obviously where his heart was, a small town in the countryside, whose buildings he used as models for those of Main Street in Disneyland.
Disney was a dreamer, and this gripping opera gives us his dreams and his nightmares, including a strange encounter with an owl-girl, a dissident ex-worker from the Disney Studios, a witty cameo appearance by Andy Warhol, and an extraordinary scene with an animated Abraham Lincoln. When Walt was 9, and living in Marceline, he would recite the Gettysburg Address by heart, but the Disney recreation of Lincoln came out with quotations that were partly at odds with Disney’s own political positions. This scene provides a light touch, but then the whole opera has a marvellously light touch. Based on a book by Peter Stephan Jungk, the libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer serves as an excellent vehicle for an opera lasting a little over two hours including an interval, and when Philip Glass came on stage during the curtain calls he received a huge ovation.
As Disney himself, Christopher Purves was outstanding. David Soar gave a good account of his older brother Roy, Donald Kaasch was a strong physical and vocal presence as the resentful ex-employee, and Janis Kelly sang beautifully as Disney’s nurse. The production by Phelim McDermott, with fine designs by Dan Potra, cleverly used dancers as animals — though not the usual well-known ones, for copyright reasons — and gave a clear outline of what was going on, using video projections of places and dates.
We are in the last months of Disney’s life when he hoped and specified that his body would be frozen after death, awaiting new scientific advances so he could be reborn as a messiah. He had already said he was “hewn from the same rock as Edison and Ford”, and when the dissident worker tells him he merely used others to do it all for him, his response was that he creates dreams. Indeed he did, and the dissident even came to pay his respects at Disney’s funeral, only to find that plans had changed. Disney’s dying wish about being cryongenically frozen was considered as just another dream, and his family had cremated him a day earlier.
Excellent conducting by Gareth Jones brought out the modern lyricism of Glass’s music, and this co-production with Madrid fully rewards a visit. Unlike the Rossini museum piece at Covent Garden being put on for top flight singers keen to perform the roles, this is cutting edge material from the ENO — not to be missed.
Performances continue until June 28 — for details click here.