Walt Disney was not a nice guy. This is one of those things you learn when you’re in your mid-to-late teens, having grown up (if you were born at any point from around 1930 onward) on a diet of Disney movies, and it’s a kind of adolescent follow-on to the revelation that there’s no such thing as Santa.
Disney, the man who brought you Mickey and Donald and who established Disneyworld and Disneyland, the self-proclaimed “happiest places on Earth”, was a bit racist and may or may not have had his head frozen in a cryogenic chamber after he died. So not a nice guy, and potentially a little bit nuts.
It’s understandable, then, why composer Philip Glass and librettist Rudy Wurtlitzer (who wrote the screenplay to Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid) should consider Disney a suitable subject for an opera. Wurlitzer’s libretto is based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel Der König von Amerika (literally ‘King of America’, translated as ‘Perfect American’), which explores the last year of Disney’s life, as he succumbs to lung cancer and looks back on his life and career.
I haven’t read Jungk’s novel, so can’t comment on the approach he took, but Glass and Wurlitzer’s opera offers us a kind of kaleidoscopic dream, the hospitalised Disney reminiscing with his brother about their childhood in Marceline, Missouri, harrassed by a disgruntled former employee, and plagued by identikit animators who morph into rabbit-like creatures and a small child wearing an over-sized owl mask.
The problem for anyone approaching the life of an entertainer and filmmaker as famous and iconic as Walt Disney is how much you rely on familiar visual and sonic cues to conjure up that life. The Disney Corporation are notoriously protective and litigious, and it’s likely that any direct reference (a few notes from ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ here; a black mouse with red shorts there) would have resulted in Glass & Co. experiencing the full wrath of the Kingdom of the Mouse.
Okay, so it was unlikely Glass would ever have offered up a pastiche of classic Disney songs, and he’s not exactly the world’s most adventurous composer, but what’s more interesting is how the show’s designer and animation director, Dan Potra and Joseph Pierce, have played against the Disney aesthetic. There are one or two very brief nods towards Disney’s iconography (the cancerous cells in Disney’s x-rayed lungs turning briefly into the famous Mickey Mouse outline), but otherwise the animal imagery conjured up in both the costumes and impressive projections is something far darker and more primeval than Bambi.
Wurlitzer’s libretto, too, hints at something dark, almost pagan, bubbling away beneath Disney’s veneer of apple pie and traditional, small-town values. On face value the plain verse dialogue appears banal, commonplace. Only as the opera progresses do we pick up on repeat references to animals and Disney’s anthropomorphised characters, usually mentioned in conjunction with Jesus, Moses and Zeus.
Disney, as portrayed by an excellent Christopher Purves, is very aware that he’s creating a secular iconography for the industrial age, boasting at one point that today’s children are more familiar with Mickey Mouse than Jesus Christ, and there are hints of something darker, pre-Christian and pagan, too, when – before fading into a version of the US flag – the projected backdrop gives us two prominent pentagrams. This is Walt Disney as a capitalist shaman, and the Disney brand as a syncretic religion, fusing the crucifix and totem pole.
There were several points during the show when The Perfect American reminded me of John Gray’s recent book, The Immortalisation Commission, which looked at the various oddball schemes, both in Victorian England and early Soviet Russia, to cheat death. In England it took the form of seances, in Russia the ghoulish image of a waxy, frozen Lenin in his glass sarcophagus (shades of Snow White, anyone?) When, at the end of Act 1, Disney communes with a malfunctioning animatronic Lincoln (Zachary James), there are obvious visual references to Pinocchio, but even more so the scene feels like a kind of seance, with Disney hearing the words of this American icon, but then shaping them and censoring them to fit his own worldview.
This scene is revealing, because it demonstrates that the “American Dream” that Disney – or at least this Disney – is interested in isn’t the one laid down by the country’s great, historic statesmen, but a kind of vapid, Norman Rockwell vision of an America that never really existed in the first place. Disney’s ideas are less Utopian, and more reactionary; an attempt to reverse the very revolution (which included locomotives and the cinema) that got him where he is in the first place. When confronted, at the beginning of Act 2, by Andy Warhol – a 2nd generation artist similarly obsessed by mass production and secular iconography – Disney’s brother Roy turns the foppish, camp-as-Christmas pop artist away in horror.
The Perfect American is not without its flaws. Glass, as already mentioned, isn’t particularly versatile, and all-too-often coasts along on autopilot. Much of the score is familiar, with only the odd moment (such as the Copland-esque flourishes during the Lincoln scene) to make it stand out from the rest of his body of work, and some audiences may struggle with Wurlitzer’s unfurnished, prose-like libretto, expecting something more obviously lyrical or witty.
Where the opera succeeds is in its performances – many of which are great – and its marriage of subject, subtext and very powerful and provocative imagery. It takes a scalpel to the mentality of a man who considered himself a storyteller, yet relied on others to tell his stories, and a lover of all human beings, though he (allegedly, and to borrow a phrase) considered some human beings more equal than others. The production is rich in ideas and symbolism (the test card framing Disney’s deathbed alternately takes on the appearance of a target and a ticking clock) that are ultimately far more memorable and vivid than any of its tunes.