Philip Glass's THE PERFECT AMERICAN Opera Tells the Story of Walt Disney's Final Days
Long Beach Opera presents the American Premiere of THE PERFECT AMERICAN, March 12 and 18, 2-18, with music by Philip Glass and libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer.
A fictionalized account of Walt Disney's final days. He is haunted by his own mortality, boundless ambition, and visionary empire. There is more to this icon than simply making dreams come true. With appearances by Abraham Lincoln, Andy Warhol, and Disney's family, this whirlwind contemporary opera is a poetic and tragic story of the American Dream.
Glass' 25th opera The Perfect American was originally commissioned by the New York City Opera in 2008. The world premiere took place at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2013. The libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer is based on the controversial biographical novel, Der König von Amerika by Peter Stephan Jungk. Der König von Amerika was translated to The Perfect American by Michael Hofmann, you can find his English version here. The novel imagines the last three months of the life of Walt Disney from the tales of the fictional Austrian cartoonist Wilhelm Dantine, who - before being fired - had worked for Disney between 1940 and 1950. The creator of Mickey Mouse is depicted as something of a megalomaniac racist, misogynist (only men were allowed to draw, women were only allowed coloring) and for exposing three of his employees before the committee on un-American activities.
Glass describes the last years of the life of Walt Disney "unimaginable, alarming and truly frightening", but cedes him responsibility for his own ideas because he believes they are the product of the context in which he lived. He sees him as "a child of his time with very conservative ideas, yes, but a great visionary", "a human being in ordinary and extraordinary times", "an icon of modernity, a man capable of building bridges between high culture and popular culture". In this sense it recalls that "Disney has always been conscious of the attitudes of ordinary people and also allowed the masses to address the high culture by introducing the music of Tchaikovsky and others in his films".
For him, his opera "is not a documentary or portrait" but a "journey poetic and tragic" through the last months of the life of an artist who "faced the same doubts that beset us all". He therefore conceived it as a kind of poem on the quintessentially American and a reflection on death.
American composer, Philip Glass, was born 1937 in Baltimore, Maryland where he began collecting records from his father's record store including modern music and western classical music. At the young age 15, Glass was accepted into an accelerated college program at the University of Chicago studying Mathematics and Philsophy. Glass discovered surealism in Chicago and a few years later attended the Julliard School of Music where he studied keyboard and composition. Now a composer of operas and symphones he has collaborated with artists such as Twyla Tharp, Allen Ginsberg, Woody Allen and David Bowie. Along with his popular operas Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha, Akhnaten, and The Voyage he has also composed for theater and motion pictures including The Hours, Kindun, and Koyaanisqatsi. Glass has described that his music has "immersed a listener in a sort of sonic weather that twists, turns, surrounds, develops". Considered one of the most influential music makers of the late 20th century Glass has composed over 25 operas, 8 symphonies and two piano concertos.
The Perfect American does not follow a continuous story line - the story jumps from one time and / or place to another and presents Disney in different stages of his life more or less true, more or less fictitious. The first act evokes the Walt Disney that everyone sees, the public figure as part of his family and loved ones. The second act explores what he thinks of himself; his psyche tormented but visionary artist who has devoted his life to a vision of a world without death and who now faces his own mortality, haunted by the possibility of achieving immortality.
In his hospital bed, Walt Disney in delirium imagines the head of an owl. His dream transforms into a nightmare, "No! No! Go away! I drift without knowing what is real and what is not". This is the owl he killed with his own hands as a child (he was told that it was a bird of ill omen). He wants to return to his hometown, Marceline (Missouri) "... Where dreams come true."
Walt and his brother Roy visit Marceline, the small town in the Midwest where they grew up, the magical realm of their imagination, the "soul of America where every day was magical". All residents welcome Walt as a god. At the inauguration of a public pool that Walt offered the city, Dantine Wilhelm, a cartoonist and former employee, makes his appearance.
At the hospital, Walt dreads his death. "We all have the same problem. We will all die." Nurse Hazel comforts him. Walt is filled with fear: "I'm afraid that my empire is collapsing when I am no more." He asked her to make sure he is cryogenically preserved when he dies: "Put me in the mirror or congèle me in liquid nitrogen." he sings. His wife Lillian, his brother Roy and his daughters Diane and Sharon visit him. Walt asks them to never utter the word "die".
A few years earlier, in his office studios of Burbank, he remembers his successes with his brother Roy "From Japan to Mongolia, Nepal, Portugal, Greenland, Peru, billions of people know who is Walt Disney. But we must do better, we must do more ... ". Both are preparing plans for Disneyland and deplore the ugly presence of modernity. Walt compares himself to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. He boasts of being more famous than Santa Claus, Moses, Zeus and Jesus. Catoonist Dantine appears again and accuses Walt of unfair dismissal.
Lilian has good news for Walt. His condition has stabilized. At his home in Holmby Hills, his family gives him a surprise party for his 65th birthday. Lucy, a strange girl with an owl mask, appears to Walt reminding him of the demon owl he killed as a child.
At Anaheim, late at night, Walt tries to fix an animatronic Abraham Lincoln. He believes they both belong to the same class of American icons: "Despite all the obstacles, we've made something of ourselves. They changed the world "We are folk heroes ..." but realizes that he no longer shares the same beliefs as the illustrious hero of his childhood: "You have been a proponent of black race. That's a big difference between us." "I revere you, Mr. President, but our views do not coincide anymore." The Lincoln automat stutters his famous speeches on freedom, proclaiming the power of USA.
Andy Warhol wants to paint Walt for his series of portraits of American superstars. Roy denies him permission. Warhol proclaims his love for Disney, "Tell Walt I love him and I love his work. Tell him that we are one and the same."
The chorus sings: "Driving fast or slow to LA where everything is possible and everything is doable. Where the world is a playground and where dreams come true." Walt boards a miniature train. The train derails as Dantine reappears.
Walt remembers Dantine being fired for trying to form a union: "...his leftist and unpatriotic comments insult all that Disney represents"; he wants a machine that would be able to replace his workforce. Dantine asks for compensation, but the chorus sings that Walt is a magician who can do nothing wrong. Dantine accuses him" "All you are is a moderately successful C.E.O. Nothing more than that." Walt befriends Josh, a boy patient in the intensive care unit: "You are Walt Disney! The man who makes animals talk."
The doctor tells Lillian and her family that Walt was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. At best he has two years to live.
Josh asks him how he managed to create and draw so many characters. Walt says he's a great storyteller, who motivates and inspires his employees: "I have not done everything without me there would be no movies." Josh thinks Walt is like God: "I realized, Walt: you are like God." Walt nods thoughtfully, "Well, in a way."
Walt dies. The chorus and the Disney family remember Marceline and its idealistic innocence. Lucy, the owl girl appears and takes Walt with her.
Dantine, dirty and in rags, meets the undertaker at the funeral home. He tells him that Walt will be cremated and not frozen. The chorus recalls the miraculous nature of the dream of Disneyland: never say "die".
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