Walt Disney famously declared that his greatest creation was Walt Disney. But who was the man behind his grand invention? What do we find when we peer behind the facade of America’s most beloved storyteller, the iconic dreamer of Technicolor dreams, the archetypal American success story?
Those are some of the questions posed by “The Perfect American,” Philip Glass’ two-act opera, set in the final days of the famous animator who built both a multinational entertainment empire and an indelible place for himself in the annals of 20th-century culture.
It’s fitting that the work had its Midwest premiere in Chicago, where the creator of Mickey Mouse, “Snow White” and “Bambi” was born in 1901 in a two-story frame house in the city’s working-class Hermosa neighborhood, before the family moved to a farm in Marceline, Mo., where Disney spent his early childhood.
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The Chicago Opera Theater opened “The Perfect American” Saturday in a new production it is sharing with California’s Long Beach Opera, where it received its U.S. premiere in March. Andreas Mitisek, who serves as artistic director of both the Chicago and Long Beach companies, conducts. The production is directed by Kevin Newbury.
The opera, with a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer, is based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel “The King of America,” which depicts Disney as a power-hungry racist and misogynist. “The Perfect American” conjures the demons that obsessed him at the end of his life. As the 65-year-old Disney lies in his hospital bed, dying of lung cancer, he ponders his mortality and legacy. Memories of happier times come flooding back as the opera leapfrogs between present and past.
Commissioned by New York City Opera in 2008, Glass’ 25th opera had to wait until 2013 to receive its world premiere in Spain at Madrid’s Teatro Real. American opera companies shied away from producing the work. Opposition from members of the Disney family, who objected to the less-than-rose-colored portrait of Walt, prevented “The Perfect American” from being seen in Los Angeles, where Disney made his greatest impact.
“So I called Philip Glass and asked him if he was willing to give the American premiere to Long Beach and Chicago, and he said he was happy to do so, based on our history with his works and the successes we had with them,” Mitisek explains.
Far from trashing Disney, “The Perfect American” conveys, in Mitisek’s view, “a very humanizing portrayal,” one that is concerned with deeper truths surrounding Disney and his achievement. “This opera shows us that the private image of Walt Disney could be quite different from the public image.”
At a time when Disney’s vision of a perfect America based on homespun heartland values has taken on new political currency, this latest of Glass’ history-based portrait operas has something relevant to convey to today’s audiences, Mitisek says.
“No one can escape Disney’s influence,” he says. “He was a man of his time, a visionary. He was part of the culture he created around himself and still creates, more than 50 years after his death.
“Of course, a lot of the opera is fictionalized, but the Disney as presented here reflects the opinions of many of his contemporaries.
“Besides,” Mitisek adds, “who would be interested in a character who is only good? Certainly not opera audiences.”
For his part, Newbury considers the show a balanced, intimate, warts-and-all portrait of a man of great complexities and greater contradictions who, he says, “changed the way we look at storytelling and imagination and childhood, and really transformed so many industries, from film to entertainment to theme parks. He was a mastermind.
“What I find interesting about taking on cultural icons like Walt Disney is what we don’t know about them. Opera allows us to peek into the window and imagine what goes on in the mind and imagination of persons we thought we knew.”
The real-life Disney named names during the Communist witch hunts of the McCarthy era, was anti-union and anti-civil rights, and looked askance at the 1960s counterculture whose radical notions he believed would destroy the American values he brought with him from the Midwest.
In the opera, we see Walt Disney (portrayed by baritone Justin Ryan) worrying about what would become of the company brand once he was gone, even toying with the idea of having his body cryogenically frozen. Neither notion contradicts what his biographers have written about Disney.
Newbury says his “fantastical and phantasmagoric” production concept takes its cue from the opera’s fluid sense of time and imaginative intertwining of real and imagined events (Andy Warhol and an animatronic Abraham Lincoln put in appearances). He has, he says, taken a similar video-driven approach to his previous stagings of Glass operas, including “Galileo Galilei” for Portland Opera.
This summer Newbury will direct the world premiere of an opera about another iconic American figure, information technology entrepreneur Steve Jobs, in Mason Bates’ “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” at Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.
“The Perfect American” expands the trilogy of portrait operas about men who profoundly changed the world — Albert Einstein, Mohandas Gandhi and the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten — that launched Glass as a prolific composer of music theater works. In Mitisek’s view, the opera signals new musical and dramatic directions for Glass.
“I think it is one of the most beautiful of his works,” Mitisek observes. “Alongside his familiar repetitive impulses, there are moments that, harmonically and emotionally, underscore Disney’s journey as an artist and human being. The music is very moving and powerful.”
Disney’s creations shaped the work of countless artists and storytellers who came after him and continue to touch millions of people the world over. What Mitisek calls “the different stories of humanity” that bear the Disney brand “help us understand who we are, where we come from and where we are going.”
Perhaps the best “The Perfect American” can hope to achieve is to bring us closer to a similar kind of understanding.