Tuesday, January 6, 2015
Imagine animator Walt Disney (1901-1966) meeting composer Philip Glass! It probably never happened in real life, but it is happening these days on the opera stage. The conjunction of forces is nothing less than a collision. Glass's new opera, THE PERFECT AMERICAN, premiered last year in Madrid's Teatro Real and was co-produced by English National Opera. Walt is on stage on his death bed, visited by people and events from his past life. Among his visitors are former employees, his wife, Lillian, and pop artist Andy Warhol.
The libretto is based on a book by Peter Stephan Jungk. According to an article in OPERA NEWS, 22 January 2013, "The novel is a fierce demythologizing of Walt Disney, who is depicted in the last months of his life as a racist, far-rightist, ignorant, populist bigot. The libretto for Glass's opera, by veteran novelist, playwright and scriptwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. . . maintains the Disney character as a 'negative' force but somewhat humanizes the monster of Jungk's book."
The article acknowledges there are "racist and anti-union rants, but the piece also acknowledges the man's nostalgia for his childhood and his rare ability to touch the imaginations of children." The emotional center of the piece (and Walt's life) is his boyhood hometown of Marceline, Missouri.
I have visited Marceline, just two hours north and west of Kansas City, walked its Main Street (the model for all of the "Main Streets" of the Disney theme parks), and attended several of the annual "Toon Fests," which attract animators and scholars and fans from all over the world. No word yet about this new opera from the admirable Kaye Malins, who is Marceline's most enthusiastic and devoted protector of Walt's legacy. I hope to include her remarks in another posting in the near future.
I can only say that Glass's opera follows in the footsteps of a number of recent attempts to deconstruct and in some measure debunk Uncle Walt's life and legacy. Marc Eliot's WALT DISNEY: HOLLYWOOD'S DARK PRINCE (1993), led the way. The less said about that, the better. Rather more respectful but no less critical, is the documentary WAKING SLEEPING BEAUTY (2009), a mesmerizing "behind-the-scenes" look at the post-Walt years at the studio.
I might add an affectionate counterpoint to all this is a new anthology from McFarland, WALT DISNEY, FROM READER TO STORYTELLER, edited by Kathy Merlock Jackson and Mark I. West, which chronicles the literary precedents and backgrounds of Disney's films. (I am honored to have a essay included therein, "Summit Meetings: Mickey Mouse's Culture Wars.")
Uncle Walt survives it all of course. He needs no help from any of us. But I can't help but wonder when, if ever, THE PERFECT AMERICAN will reach an American opera house.