The Perfect American
English National Opera, London Coliseum
1 to 28 June 2013
Philip Glass has long been partial to the use of opera as a mode of portraiture: Einstein, Akhnaten, Gandhi, and Galileo are just a few of the many historic figures in his expanding repertoire of musical “great lives”. The latest addition to the list is Walt Disney—founding father of animation, icon of successful commercialism, and ostensibly the “perfect American” trumpeted by the title of Glass’s 24th opera.
Disney’s perfection is, of course, entirely a matter of one’s point of view and The Perfect American wastes no time in unpacking the irony implied in its conspicuously hyperbolic title. Disney’s bombastic delusions of grandeur are repeatedly exposed. Proud of his triumphs as an innovator and his talent as a business man, he confidently likens himself to Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, revelling in the certainty that his name and creations enjoy greater renown than Santa Claus, Moses, Zeus, or Jesus. “You’re just like God!”, exclaims a young admirer towards the end of the opera; Disney, with all too transparent a show of false modesty, can but concur.
The opera opens in Marceline, Missouri, a small railway junction tucked away deep in the American Midwest. If Disney is portrayed from the first as a man enthralled to the cult of his own personality, Marceline lies at the fulcrum of his myth of origins. It was on the farms of Marceline that Walt developed his love of trains and animals; in Marceline that he first tried his hand at drawing; in Marceline that he became wedded to an ideal of America as a land of tradition and tight-knit community. It was this nostalgic vision that Disney would later seek to immortalise in the Main Streets of Disneyland, Anaheim and Disney World, Orlando. Marceline was his own magical kingdom, the seed of all his fantasy worlds.
The right-wing politics involved in this backward-looking dream of an all-white, patriarchal America are explored through Disney’s confrontations with William Dantine, an animator fired for his part in an attempt to establish a workers’ union. Dantine’s angry allegations paint the portrait of Disney as a tyrannical perfectionist, ruthlessly exploitative of his draughtsmen and technicians, paranoid in his anti-communism, and despotic in his expectation that everything should be sacrificed to the greater glory of his empire.
Disney’s illiberal ideology is further foregrounded at the end of Act I when he is called upon to help handle the malfunctioning animatronic manikin of Abraham Lincoln, Disneyland’s star attraction. The scene has all the trappings of farce. “Abraham Lincoln”—a deranged over-sized puppet—jolts his way across the stage amid a sea of cables. In his wake, an army of technicians battles to regain control. Enter Disney: father figure, confidant, robot-whisperer. In the course of the halting and surreal conversation that follows, Lincoln’s mechanical simulacrum recalls the outrage of slavery. Disney, however, politely begs to differ: “As much as I revere you, Mr President, your views no longer tally with mine”. Lincoln, undeterred, hails liberty as the cornerstone of American values: “Let freedom become the political religion of our nation. Young and old, rich and poor, all races and creeds should offer continual sacrifice at the altars of freedom”. The Frankensteinian rift between creator and creature widens. But in this nightmarish encounter, who is the creator, who the creature? If Lincoln, all leaking fumes and convulsive jerks, appears at first to be the dangerous renegade (“Cut the God-damned power”, yells Disney as Lincoln raises his arm to thrash him), Disney, a traitor to the nation’s historic ideals, seems as likely a monster. The scene thrillingly rises above its absurd premise, turning a fundamental disagreement between two visions of America into high drama.
The opera’s second act enlists another American icon in the figure of Andy Warhol. Sporting a suit of purple velour, pointed orange shoes, and a shock of bouffant white hair, the pop artist catwalks onto the stage, fizzing with admiration for Disney. Eager to be granted an audience with his hero, Warhol vaunts his credentials as a true Disney worshipper: “I am an American artist, born in the same year as Mickey Mouse”, he gushes. Pandering to Disney’s affection for small-town life, Warhol proclaims his devotion to such “ordinary things” as Campbell’s Soup cans. Above all, he proclaims his allegiance to America: “In my art, I represent the United States of America. […] I love this country, it’s fantastic! I never criticize America.” This Warhol is as much of a caricature as was the preceding act’s Lincoln, but his function, like the president’s, extends beyond postmodern buffoonery.
Indeed, Warhol’s cameo forms part of an encoded set of reflections about American art and American artistic lineage. Between Disney, Warhol, and Glass, the opera suggests, the connecting threads are many. All three, in their respective artistic realms—animation, pop art, musical minimalism—are pioneering figures. All three are products of 20th-century America, inextricably enmeshed in the capitalist marketplace. All three—whether in the film studio, the art studio, or the opera house—work in collaborative media (“I have a huge army of helpers”, boasts Warhol). All three, nonetheless, have highly recognisable artistic signatures or, perhaps more tellingly, trademark styles. All three deploy the key elements of their art—drawings, photographs, musical phrases—in such a way as to harness repetition and seriality as primary working principles.
Glass’s score channels these convergences: he needed, as he has explained in interview, to find “the right language for an opera about Walt Disney”. The musical idiom he forged is inspired by the bright primary colours of Warhol’s canvases. The opera’s lively chromatic texture, achieved through the use of melodies and harmonies largely absent from Glass’s earlier work, is showcased in his grandiose “Happy Birthday” to Disney, performed in a scene celebrating the animator’s 65th birthday. The contrast between the clichéd ordinariness of the lyrics, the epic swell of the chorus, and orchestra’s rousing operatic rendition is typical of the wry comedy which runs as an undertone throughout the work. Glass’s operas have always tended to blur the boundaries between high and low culture. The Perfect American comes closer to popular art and everyday life than Glass had previously ventured, at times evoking the exuberance of musical, opera’s crowd-pleasing sister-genre. We are a long way here from the Sanskrit libretto of Satyagraha (1980), and from the taut, non-narrative experimentalism of Einstein on the Beach (1976).
As well as being about America and its art, the opera is about mortality and the modern Western way of death. At the heart of The Perfect American is a man attached to a chemical drip, facing his own rapidly approaching demise. In one particularly memorable scene, a stage-high X-ray of Disney’s lungs is projected onto a semi-transparent curtain. In the penumbra behind the screen, Disney tosses and turns on a narrow hospital bed. Suddenly, three circles appear on Disney’s left lung, drawn by an invisible hand. The sketch—one of the opera’s many allusions to Mickey Mouse—is swiftly, almost cheekily executed. The irresistible cartoonish comedy of the darting lines is unsettling in this sombre medical context. But next comes the real coup de théâtre: the circles begin to multiply. What the audience sees, as clearly as a cluster of mischievous Mickey Mouses, are proliferating cancer cells, spreading fast over Disney’s ailing lungs.
The colourful, varied score, excellent orchestral and singing performances, ingenious set design, and impressive use of projection and animation all work together to make for exciting spectacle. But the show is not without its imperfections. Because the opera focuses on the final months of Disney’s life, the narrative vantage point is largely retrospective and the structure markedly episodic: we shuttle backwards and forwards in time, catching glimpses of significant moments in Disney’s past as well as in his disease-dominated present. As a result, the work as a whole feels like a Warholesque kaleidoscope of vignettes rather than a story speeding towards revelation.
The characterisation also seems lacking in psychological tension. Glass has compared Disney to Gandhi and Einstein, describing him as a “complicated” man with “his feet in the mud and his head in the clouds”. Yet if this is true, The Perfect American shows too much of the mud and too little of the clouds. Although a certain amount of sympathy naturally rushes to him as he confronts his own mortality, Disney emerges neither as a good man nor as a great artist. At best, he is presented as, in Dantine’s damning words, “a moderately successful CEO”.
These problems are in large part attributable to the opera’s shaky foundations. Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto is based on a novel by Peter Stephan Jungk (The Perfect American, 2001), much of which is, by the author’s own admission, pure fabrication. Narrated by William Dantine, an obsessive, unstable individual intent on bizarre acts of retribution (Wurlitzer’s Dantine is an altogether saner character), the book veers erratically between infatuated admiration and rancorous vilification. Disney has long been a controversial figure. Jungk’s account, peddling old myths and new apocrypha, does little but add to the vast body of unsubstantiated rumour surrounding his life. If the portrait offered in Glass’s opera has any truth to it, he would have been better advised to build it on sounder testimony.
Scarlett Baron  is a Lecturer in Twentieth-Century British and American Literature at University College London.