Not many operas include the lines ‘quack, quack’ and ‘buzz, buzz’, but when the evening’s focus is the final months of Walt Disney’s life, such animalistic sounds rather go with the territory!
The Perfect American, which first appeared in Madrid in January and now enjoys its UK premiere, is composer Philip Glass’s 25th opera, and is based upon Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel, The King of America. By presenting a series of imagined scenes from Disney’s final year of 1966, it explores the iconic figure’s hopes and ambitions alongside his fears and neuroses.
The opera suggests that, although Disney achieved a god-like status through the studio’s creations, he desired actual, rather than just metaphorical, immortality, and believed that with science he could achieve this. He is shown as ruthless, taking sole credit for all of his workers’ creations and output, and yet the opera feels all the richer for not merely presenting him as a two-dimensional ‘dictator’.
As we see Disney recall his childhood in Marceline, a small town in Missouri, we feel sympathetic enough towards him to want to spend an evening in his presence. When he replies to a worker who accuses him of stealing others’ work and ideas he reveals how he ruled through force of personality, but there may also be some truth in his claim that he only ever created, and never destroyed, magic.
Phelim McDermott’s excellent staging includes people hopping around like bunnies, and video projections (courtesy of 59 Productions) of the ‘anatomy’ of cartoon animals. Glass’s minimalist music is intensely satisfying, and includes more melodic moments such as when Walt celebrates his birthday. When the minimalism subsequently snaps back in, it indicates a turning away from light revelry.
From among the superb cast, Christopher Purves as Walt, David Soar as his brother Roy, Donald Kaasch as a disgruntled former Disney employee, Zachary James as Abraham Lincoln and John Easterlin as Andy Warhol all stand out. The Perfect American is an excellent new creation and, given its certain air of novelty, it may be an opera for people who don’t like opera as much as for those who do.
Until 28 June (nine performances) at the London Coliseum, Saint Martin’s Lane, Charing Cross, WC2N 4ES with a start time of 19.30. For tickets (£19-£75) visit the Coliseum website.
Londonist received a complimentary ticket from the ENO press team.
Photo: Not your normal deathbed - Christopher Purves as Walt Disney, © ENO / Richard Hubert Smith.