The American premiere of Philip Glass’s “The Perfect American,” an opera that ruminates on the final days of Walt Disney, was given by ever-courageous Long Beach Opera on Sunday afternoon at the Terrace Theater. The controversial work was first proposed by Gerard Mortier during his truncated reign at New York City Opera and finally debuted in 2013 at the Teatro Real Madrid. Since then, there have been no takers on these shores, Los Angeles Opera reportedly among the companies giving it a pass. A perfect piece, then, for Long Beach Opera, which also gave us our first local look at “The Death of Klinghoffer.”
“The Perfect American” is one of those pseudo biographical artworks that sends the viewer to the internet to check on the facts. Based on a German novel, it shows Disney as a (mild) racist, anti-Communist and anti-unionist, in other words, as a man with blemishes. To tell you the truth, though, I checked the internet before seeing the opera, thinking there was more controversy than actually materialized. The opera is passingly critical of Disney, but hardly turns him into a monster. And if the last 10 or 15 minutes of the opera isn’t a loving tribute to the master, with some of the most simply beautiful music Glass has ever written, I don’t know what it is.
Besides, the opera pulls punches by having the action, such as it is, unfold in a dream state, Disney’s dream state to be specific, as he slowly dies of lung cancer in the hospital. At the very beginning of the opera, he sings about “knowing” and “not knowing” what is “real” and “not real.” We often don’t know either. Presumably, when an animatronic Lincoln visits and debates him, this is an unreal moment, but it is at precisely this time when Disney utters his racist remarks.
Rudolph Wurlitzer’s libretto is lacking in incident. The plot is ostensibly thickened by the character (fictional) of Wilhelm Dantine. An artist fired by Disney and now a disgruntled former employee, he narrates the novel but here gets rather short shrift, by no means the center of action.
Long Beach Opera’s production, directed by Kevin Newbury and designed by Zane Pihlström, is set in an attractive and bright hospital room with surgical lights overhead. Behind, as if viewing a surgery, sits the choir. A panel above provides space for various projections. But given the diffuse story line, there is little for anyone to do except roll around beds and chairs and close and pull back curtains. The mid-60s costumes, also by Pihlström, are nicely observed.
Glass’s score is recognizably him. The relative surprise is in the warmth of feeling and wealth of colors in it. A large arsenal of percussion snaps, crackles and pops rather than booms. The brass provides glowing chorales. Though the score delves into the usual rhythmic thrum, it is less insistent in doing so. The words are set clearly, one note per syllable, in stepwise motion, and in keeping with the rhythm and emphasis of the phrase as it would be spoken. Unfortunately, like so many contemporary operas, Glass does away with arias, and melisma, so that what we get is a sung play, and a rather prosy one at that.
Baritone Justin Ryan made a sympathetic Disney, eloquent in tone and elocution, and visually reminiscent of the man himself. Baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis produced a bluff and forceful Roy Disney. Tenor Scott Ramsay may have been a shade too amiable and sweet-voiced as Dantine. In smaller parts Suzan Hanson (Lillian Disney) and Kyle Erdos-Knapp (Doctor/Andy Warhol, the latter of whom tries to visit Disney in the hospital) acquitted themselves well. The Bob Cole Conservatory Chamber Choir (from Cal State Long Beach) was poised and vibrant. The company’s general director, Andreas Mitisek, led an orchestra of nearly 40 musicians in the pit with an ear for proper balances and supple contours.
“The Perfect American” is Glass’s 25th opera. Call him the Donizetti of our day.
photo: Keith Ian Polakoff