The Perfect American – Philip Glass’s imperfect new opera

Like its central character, Walt Disney, Philip Glass’s new opera is flawed. Despite a good premise, an imaginative set that works around a strict ban on Disney imagery, and a solid-as-ever score from Glass, The Perfect American – on at the Coliseum in London until the 28th June – is a bit of a disappointment.

The music and text do not come together for any prolonged period of time, and the work feels slightly like a failed experiment.

Despite only premiering in Madrid in January of this year, reaching our shores this month, it is already incorrect to call The Perfect American Philip Glass’s latest opera. That would be The Lost, which played in Austria in April. Glass’ rate of composition is staggering, regardless of whether or not you believe he recycles his material or his content to churn out similar music over and over – in my opinion, he does, but so what. In fact, this theme of art in the age of mechanical/digital reproduction echoes throughout the opera.

The signs were good for The Perfect American to be a successful work. Glass cut his operatic teeth with landmark operas about great, iconic figures, most famously Einstein in Einstein on the Beach, and Gandhi (via Tolstoy, Rabindranath Tagore and Martin Luther King Jr) in Satyagraha. Whilst almost all of Glass’ operatic works are character studies of powerful men (and it is always men, he has also looked at Columbus, Gallileo and Johannes Kepler). He has perhaps been at his best when looking at more contemporary figures.  Walt Disney towers over modern culture and is certainly worthy of Glass’ attention. This particular examination had the potential for an extra layer of interest as some of the themes explored could be equally applicable to Glass as Disney. The two figures, with their shared mix of high and low art and their fame/infamy within and outside their field, have much in common. Both too are embodiments of the American Dream.

The plot does not disappoint. Adapted from Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel also called The Perfect American, we view Walt Disney (played superbly by Christopher Purves) as he succumbs to lung cancer, from the unreliable narratorial perspective of a fictional Disney company animator named Wilhelm Dantine. Dantine tries to establish a union, only to be sacked by Disney, and the two encounter each other sporadically to debate who is the real artist and who is a mere craftsman/businessman, as well as matters of politics and economics. This fictionalized approach has echoes of Werner Herzog’s theory of ‘ecstatic truth’ in which documentary works can access deeper ‘truths’ through a healthy disregard to the lesser ‘facts.’ Disney did resist the unionization of his workers; he did meet with Andy Warhol and he was obsessed with Abraham Lincoln, but these facts are explored in a highly stylized way that seems to be striving towards the higher plane of truth.

Lincoln appears as his Disneyland animatronic model likeness and engages with Walt in a debate about civil rights. This unusual role is played with aplomb by the physically imposing Zachary James. In the show’s most humorous scene, Warhol (John Easterlin) appears as the arch-hipster, turning up unannounced at the Disney offices and demanding to see the terminally ill Walt, who he sees as a kindred spirit. Most of the 13 vignettes that comprise the opera’s two acts work and are imaginatively staged by Dan Potra; the subliminal mickey mouse ears that adorn many of the set’s features are a nice enough solution to the Disney corporation’s edict preventing the opera from using any of their trademark iconography. And, whilst a plot device in which Disney is haunted (given lung cancer by?) the ghost of an owl named Lucy that he shot as a boy is ridiculous, there are deeper problems with this work.

The biggest flaw is that the libretto, adapted from Jungk’s novel by Rudy Wurlitzer, simply does not go with Philip Glass’s music. Neither element is itself, but they seem to operate independently for the majority of the show. The text is too conversational and naturalistic to fit Glass’s stylish, stylized music and the solution – ever-changing bar lines to accommodate the characters’ matter-of-fact utterances – is unsatisfactory. It is only when the text is (accidentally or by design) simpler, rhyming and more rhythmically repetitive that the two components synthesise. In these few moments, the work feels more like musical theatre and is no poorer for it – John Adams’ musical theatre piece I Was Looking at the Ceiling has its faults, but the word setting is not amongst them. The text needed a different composer, or the composer needed a different text.

Glass’s overture is striking and proof (alongside his newest piano Etudes) that there is life in the composer yet, but its offbeat woodblock and infectious syncopations hinted at exciting things that largely failed to materialize. Apart from a bassoon line in Act 1 Scene 5 that Glass unwittingly coopted from Abba’s ‘Money, Money, Money’, not much else sticks in the mind from the score until a staggering final scene where the whole chorus (cartoon animals and all) sings of Disney’s vision of ‘everlasting happiness’ in a creepy manner redolent of the ‘In Heaven’ song from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. I must confess to spotting mouse ears in the scenery during one or two dull plateaus in the middle.

Musically, The Perfect American spikes at the beginning and the end, but the good staging and convincing performances by the central cast throughout make it worth the admission for existing fans of Philip Glass or contemporary opera. It is a partly successful depiction of a flawed genius and asks important questions about the relationship of art to entertainment and mass production, as well as our relationship with icons (something Glass is always good at). If you’re seeking operatic conversion from a big-ticket production (and you missed George Benjamin’s Written on Skin), give this a miss and wait for Satyagraha at the Coliseum later this year.

words Thom Hosken


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