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When owls attack

Philip Glass’s 25th opera The Perfect American was originally commissioned for New York City Opera during the aborted regime of Gerard Mortier.  When his hiring fell through in 2008, Mortier and his planned City Opera projects headed for Teatro Real Madrid, where the piece opened in January 2013.  The story tells of the final days of Walt Disney as he was dying of cancer in 1966, based on the novel Der Konig von Amerika by Peter Stephan Jungk, a fictionalized account of Disney being stalked by a fired employee who sought to unionize Disney’s employees and get them the credit they deserved for much of the actual drawing of the Disney characters.  (Saving Mr. Banks it ain’t.)  

Glass has written one of his most striking scores for this opera.  It opens on a long, sinuous low note punctuated by sharp percussive cracks, repeating in groups of four.  What follows retains the expected propulsive repetitions, but here Glass seems to be discovering new textures and colors, especially in the scenes where Walt waxes longingly for the easy days of his past.  There are musical allusions to the 1930s and 40’s and sensitive, sad sounds that emphasize the melancholy side of the characters.

I thought I heard an homage to Glass’s compatriot John Adams, and perhaps my favorite music was the semi-Wagnerian “Happy Birthday, Walt” late in Act One. There are also moments of frightening and sudden chords when Walt is experiencing nightmares, especially the one where he remembers being attacked by an owl at the age of seven.  Later, this same motif occurs when Walt’s birthday is interrupted by the child/shaman Lucy wearing owlish accouterments.  This owl motif, though dramatically hamhanded, is musically fascinating.

The problem here, and it is a major one, is a cardboard libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer.  It certainly must have been a trial to shape the Jungk novel into a two-hour opera, but Wurlitzer has not found a way to make these characters or these situations human.  Disney (and, actually, everyone else) does nothing but spout platitudes and clichés.  There is no subtlety, no subtext whatsoever, and the only real moments of conflict are the brief scenes between Disney and the fired employee Dantine and, of course, when anything resembling an owl (there it is again!) shows up.

The scene that ends Act One, where Disney has a conversation with the animatronic, speaking puppet of Abraham Lincoln, should have provided a great opportunity for some inventive, maybe humorous exchanges.  Instead, we find Disney spewing racist venom about blacks and hippies and actually questioning Lincoln’s moral decisions.  I found myself wishing that Lincoln would deck him.  Instead, the scene peters out, another opportunity missed.

Disney is here portrayed as a right-wing zealot, a vehement racist, and an opportunist who used the work of his underlings to achieve his fame.  We are frequently reminded that ”more children know Mickey than Christ”; Disney claims responsibility for “creating” Ronald Reagan, and, when a boy compares Disney to God, the filmmaker does not demur.

The production values are excellent.  Video designer Leo Warner and lighting designer Jon Clark create a genuinely magical atmosphere, using rudimentary drawings of Disney characters and cartoon-like visions of Disney’s home and hospital room in projections thrown upon gossamer fabrics.  All the settings are enormously enhanced through the stunning mime and dance work of the Improbable Skills Ensemble.  The excellent set and costume designs are by Dan Potra.

The performances range from very good to excellent.  Christopher Purves throws himself completely into Walt Disney, singing with confidence and power, and manages to breathe some life into the generalized avuncular affability forced upon him by the libretto.  David Pittsinger gives us a stentorian and appropriately businesslike Roy Disney, again hampered by a libretto that fails to give him an individual personality.

Among the fine supporting cast, Janis Kelly stands out as Disney’s private nurse (and implied romantic interest), both her singing and acting affecting and one of the few moving elements in the opera.  Donald Kaasch makes the most of his moments of conflict as the unjustly fired Dantine, who implies that he had a significant part in the creation of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, but was fired for his political stance and given no credit as the Disney machine rolled past him.

Glass specialist Dennis Russell Davies seems completely at home with this music, and conducts the Coro y Orquesta del Teatro Real in a sensitive but propulsive performance that breathes real life into Glass’s distinctive score.

All the elements are in place here for a fine and possibly lasting operatic experience, but the story simply doesn’t hold up.  It’s a cartoon, and, yes, we “get” that Disney’s mission and career were about creating cartoons, but his life certainly wasn’t one.

35 comments

  • fidelio101 says:

    Netrebko did not sing the dress rehearsal of Elixer
    Schrott did but he should have been cast as Belcore instead of Dulcamera.

    Do you think she’ll sing the run?

    • armerjacquino says:

      Well, I know loads more about THE PERFECT AMERICAN thanks to that post…

      • RosinaLeckermaul says:

        Saw in in London last June. Thought the score was uninspired. The music did nothing to enhance the story — it just noodled along. Also not a very interesting adaptation of a good novel. Production values were good.

        • m. croche says:

          “The music did nothing to enhance the story — it just noodled along.”

          I generally find that Glass’ music rewards attentive listening.* In the Disney-Lincoln duologue cited above, Disney sings against dissonant-rich harmony. “Marble effigy” receives a radiant G major-ninth chord as a bright spot in the harmony (hinting at C major), immediately followed by a plangent E minor-ninth chord (returning us to a minor) as Disney says “he cried”. Disney sings about his journey to Washington with a descending scale, the word Washington is sung to a more majestic E-major fanfare. Lincoln, by contrast, sings over a steadfast three-chord progression (a minor, B-flat major, E major) whose orchestration grows louder and more vibrant with each iteration.

          But Lincoln and Disney are not polar opposites -- they do share the same key, both of their musical passages oscillate between a minor and a dominant E chord. Lincoln’s music sounds like the idealized image of what Disney’s music wants to be.

          The chorus which forms the first part of the video clip is filled with interesting musical detail: the initial contrast between two musical ideas (a: the syncopated chords e-C7-e-D and b: the jazzy, hemiola ostinato) is developed on two fronts: 1) the “a” section is prolonged by an extra two bars, giving increasing weight to the “D major” harmony at the end of the phrase and thus reweighting our tonal sense of the passage, 2) the abrupt shift between the a) and b) ideas becomes a more gradual transition. When we first hear the musical phrase, we have an asymmetrical passage of 4+3 bars; by the time reach the end of the choral excerpt, we have something that sounds more like an 8 bar phrase made up of a 6-bar melody finished with a 2-bar coda.

          It’s all enough to keep me interested and engaged with both music and “story”.

          *Disclaimer: I don’t have a score in front of me, just working by ear.

    • RosinaLeckermaul says:

      Who did sing Adina? Does Netrebko not want to share the stage with her ex? I have a ticket for Thursday night, so hope for the best.

  • m. croche says:

    How would you compare Perfect American to others by Philip Glass which you’ve seen? Reading your review, I get the feeling that you are criticizing Wurlitzer’s libretto for features which are more or less common to most Glass operas. Glass has seldom been much interested in producing conventional drama and/or melodrama (and has there even been a Glass opera in which characters banter in “humorous exchanges”?)

    • redbear says:

      I thought “Les Enfants Terribles” I saw in Bordeaux was almost perfect. When he has a vital story to tell, he can.

    • derschatzgabber says:

      m. croche, did you see Appomattox in San Francisco? Act 1, depicting the events leading up to Lee’s decision to surrender, was pretty much a conventional drama. In Act 2, scenes of the negotiations between Grant and Lee alternate with scenes that depict racist incidents in the U.S. since the Civil War. I thought that Glass’ music for Act 2 was much more interesting than the music in Act 1. His muse appears to be more responsive to less traditional dramatic structures.

  • DonCarloFanatic says:

    I saw it on livestream and thought the music was interesting, but it was the same throughout. No dramatic progression is the best way I can describe it. But then I’m not sure Glass ever goes in for progression.

    The problem with the artist was that he was presented as a crazy, slobby loser, the kind of crank who wants to give everyone a broadsheet explaining why Averill Harriman was the Antichrist. The many artists beaten down by work-for-hire rules are much more stable personalities, and I felt it did their cause an injustice to portray it otherwise.

    We also don’t really get to the heart of Walt here. As someone who grew up seeing him every week on television, I felt that this opera made him the exact opposite--a distant figure. There may be a valid dramatic purpose in that, but I came away feeling I had not learned anything about him.

    • m. croche says:

      But then I’m not sure Glass ever goes in for progression.

      Glass’ music, particularly Glass’ music of the past few decades, is built on contrast, creating variations, suggesting possibilities, sometimes following through on them (and sometimes not), and creating progressions.

      Here’s one example of Glass’ techniques to create long-range musical structure. The first movement of the harpsichord concerto contain lots of phrases which end on a G7 chord, suggesting a key of c minor (though the improvisatory sections which open and close the movement are in g minor). The phrases begin lots of different ways -- with c minor, E-flat major, A-flat major etc. and end up suggesting a wide variety of keys, but they routinely end on G7. (Added complexity comes from the metrical shifts, which range from 3 to 6 beats per measure.) But every once in a while, Glass will end a phrase with a Cb-major seventh harmony (enharmonically spelled B7). It’s a big enough shift that it grabs our attention as a possible ray of light, opening up new realms of tonal color. Though tis harmony suggests a possible modulation to Fb major/E major, Glass never follows through on it in the first movement of the concerto. Only when we reach the second movement, which begins in e minor, does Glass finally follow through on the tantalizing hints he had thrown out in the first movement.

      I analyze this passage at length because there is a popular conception that Glass’ music just repeats itself, doesn’t progress, doesn’t *do* anything. To the contrary, I think Glass’ music is filled with subtle gestures, with implied (but unspoken) thoughts, with careful thought about how to guide a listener over an experience that can last from a few minutes to a few hours. He is a very conscientious musical craftsman and he repays conscientious listening.

      • derschatzgabber says:

        m. croche, thanks so much for the You Tube links to the harpsichord concerto and the musical analysis. I was not familiar with that piece.

  • Batty Masetto says:

    I watched the Perfect American webcast when it first came out, and in general liked it enormously. The music caught me up right away, in a way that Glass seldom does, and the leads and the production were largely very fine.

    But that libretto… I have to assume Glass has a complicated relationship with text – possibly love-hate? A composer who sets one opera in a language none of his principal audience will understand (Sanskrit), and chunks of another in languages that nobody even knows for sure how to pronounce correctly (Ancient Egyptian and Akkadian) is obviously not entirely in love with the usual ways in which words communicate.

    I can understand wanting to bend the role of words or reduce them to an expressive minimum – example: Goodman’s words for Nixon in China are quite wonderful in their unconventional way – but so often the Disney text just seemed to fall over the edge into wince-inducing banalities. Not Peter Handke banalities, the kind that self-reflect and grow into something of their own. Just flat-footed pedestrianisms.

    • m. croche says:

      “A composer who sets one opera in a language none of his principal audience will understand (Sanskrit), and chunks of another in languages that nobody even knows for sure how to pronounce correctly (Ancient Egyptian and Akkadian) is obviously not entirely in love with the usual ways in which words communicate.”

      I tend to think, Glass considered Sanskrit and Ancient Egyptian+Akkadian+Hebrew to be languages in which part of the world’s literary heritage has been preserved and therefore worthy of a composer’s attention* -- performance difficulties be damned. (At one point, I studied part of the score Satyagraha intensively with a word-by-word translation of the Sanskrit and found that he treated the ancient text more or less like Schubert treated a bit of poetry, using music to enhance the meaning or the declamation of the words.) The times back then were much more idealistic than they are nowadays.

      Akhnaten (the opera) is 30 years old by now. Unless I’m missing something, Glass’s operas and vocal works since then have been exclusively in English and French -- even including the Passion of Ramakrishna.

      * There is a documentary (whose name I’ve forgotten) which captures footage of Glass sorting through texts for the libretto. If I remember correctly: Coming upon the text that became “Hymn to Aten”, he exclaims in astonishment, “Why, that’s just like the Song of Solomon!” It seems like an “Aha!” moment for him, solidifying what he perceived an essential continuity between the ancient, monotheistic Akhnaten and people today. This was one passage he had presented in English, so that audiences could experience the same epiphany. Glass’ Ancient Egypt is both strange and familiar.

      • Batty Masetto says:

        No grand theories on offer here; just trying to piece together some way of accounting for how a composer of Glass’s sophistication could choose a libretto that seemed so baldly not on a par with the music. Obviously a tin ear can’t come into it, but the text really isn’t very good. So why?

        It’s like the problem with Adams and Doctor Atomic only much more acute.

  • antikitschychick says:

    Excellent review. I too caught the broadcast from Madrid and I have to say, I was enthralled from beginning to end. Glass is definitely my favorite contemporary composer because like m.croche says, his music has a lot of complexity and subtlety. The latter is something we hardly get in opera and so I greatly admire and respect his efforts to imbue his works with that. Yes one has to often be patient and listen keenly but I’ll take that experience (his music prompts one to probe and ponder about what one is hearing rather than just digest it) over an opera like Tosca any day.

    This opera is I think musically superior to Satyagraha in some ways but the production of the latter we saw is equally amazing. That was one of the few times in my (admittedly embryonic) opera going experience where I felt like I was watching performance art rather than a group of extraordinary singers hamming it up for the audience and cameras.

    Having said that, I completely agree that the librettos are is his Achilles heal. The text does indeed vary from over-hackneyed cliches to undecipherable gibberish. Had he worked with a better or perhaps different librettist for this and other operas it would definitely take him to the next level as a composer in my humble opinion.

    It is precisely because of this issue with the text that I really really really need to hear his adaptation of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Ever since I read it I always thought it would make an excellent opera and low and behold, Glass totally stole my idea:-P.

    • manou says:

      That Achilles can heal any libretto -- if he Styx at it, Thetis.

    • CarlottaBorromeo says:

      I think I understand what you are saying about Glass Antikitschychick, and I would agree that there is more to his operatic music than his detractors sometimes give him credit for… But “subtlety” is something “we rarely get in opera”? Really? What about the Act II finale of Figaro? Cosi? Tristan? Giulio Cesare? Falstaff? I could go on…

      • antikitschychick says:

        Sorry Carlottaborromeo…guess I shouldve better explained what I meant. You are of course right in saying there is musical and harmonic subtlety to be found in numerous other operas…what I meant is that the way the music is usually performed is not subtle, or at least not as subtle as some of Glass’s music which has an intimacy and in its repetitiveness. I’m sure many opera composers intended that their works have some subtlety, but more often than not there’s a lot of bombast, esp in grand opera…and even in some bel canto works, and Baroque rep which has lighter and sparser orchestration, the artists get carried away with the ornaments and the vocalization and spectacle takes over. Not that I’m against that but, I also like to hear something different…

        In Glass’s works, harmony plays a much more prominent role than melody I think, which makes for an interesting sonic experience imo.

        Sorry for the late response btw.

  • toitoitoi says:

    The libretto viciously slanders Disney; he wasn’t a racist or any kind of loon. He was a freaking genius. Why lesser artists want to pull down those greater than they are, I can’t fathom. Reminded me of Shaffer’s slanderous AMADEUS in that regard.

    • havfruen says:

      People in Anaheim who were displaced when Disneyland was built didn’t have warm feelings towards Disney. It probably wasn’t racist on his part, but rather “Robert Moses”-like. There was a lot of bitter feelings which mostly got suppressed in the media. He may have been a genius, but he certainly had his flaws.

    • -Ed. says:

      Changing the past was once thought impossible. Today it’s a growth industry.

      • Batty Masetto says:

        Ed, I realize your comment was more for fun than truth, but let’s be clear that revising the past has been a standard human activity since forever.

        Like the attempts to eliminate all record of Hatshepsut and Akhnaten. Or Suetonius revising Livia from the former “Mother of the Nation” to a Machiavellian poisoner. Or more recently, the largely successful effort by the Viennese to focus popular attention on the intellectual elegance of the city’s Jugendstil era and sweep under the rug that Nazism was being born there at the same time.

        Just for a couple obvs.

        Historiography is a fascinating field, and it exists for a reason.

  • Krunoslav says:

    Just *imagine* anyone thinking that Disney--or Lindbergh, or Henry Ford, or Father Coughlin-- was anti-Semitic!

    • toitoitoi says:

      I quote friend and Disney animator/ film historian Tom Sito: The anti-semitism charge is false. The big designers of Disneyland were Ben Sharpsteen and Marty Sklar; Joe Grant and Marc Davis were Jews. Margaret Winkler-Mintz was his first producer. Fritz Freleng was one of the first team of animators who Walt brought out from Kansas City.” I can tell you that Joe Grant got very testy whenever the anti-semitism charge was made, because he was a top animator and knew better. That said, he was a human being and not without faults. He could be tough -- very -- and demanding. But he wasn’t the monster this makes him out to be.

  • redbear says:

    http://culturebox.francetvinfo.fr/einstein-on-the-beach-au-theatre-du-chatelet-146813

    Einstein on the Beach is streamed from Chatelet in 90 minutes.

    • rossifigaro says:

      hope you are having better luck than me with the “einstein” stream. it started out ok for me but now its impossible.
      is it the stream?/my computer?/my internet provider?
      like the idea of viewing it live but perhaps the archive will be viewable.

      • oedipe says:

        Sorry to hear that. Don’t know what the problem is at your end, I have a perfect image and sound. But then, I am about a mile away from the source…

        • rossifigaro says:

          have connected to performance via chatulet’s website (presumably powered by culturebox) and all seems well now. who the hell can figure the vagaries of the internet? thanks for response. believe robert wilson did the pelleas at the bastille a few years ago? -- thought it fantastic. happy viewing!

          • redbear says:

            His oft-revived Butterfly is back next month at Bastille and his new production of L’Incoronazione di Poppea ends the season at Garnier