By Spank The Monkey
I don’t go to many first nights at the opera. As I settled into my seat at the Coliseum for the UK premiere of Philip Glass’ The Perfect American, his new piece about the final days of Walt Disney’s life, I suddenly flashed back to a first night I attended twenty-five years ago. That was also at the Coliseum, and it was for another Philip Glass opera. The Making Of The Representative For Planet 8 was his adaptation of a Doris Lessing sci-fi novel, and I can remember precisely one thing about it.
Roughly three-quarters of the way through Planet 8, there was a brief pause in between sections. Outside, there was a sudden commotion, and a police car could be heard roaring down St Martin’s Lane, its siren NEE-NAW-NEE-NAWing at full volume like they used to back in the eighties. The orchestra paused, waited for the noise to die down, and then launched into the next part of the opera. This being Philip Glass, it started with a simple repeated bass figure on the strings, just a pair of notes separated by a minor third. It went nee-naw-nee-naw. The audience laugh that followed was extraordinary – a sudden burst of guffawing, which was just as suddenly truncated as everyone remembered that the composer of both of those notes was sitting in the room with them.
Glass was also present at Saturday’s premiere of The Perfect American: in fact, I walked past him on St Martin’s Lane just an hour and a half before curtain up. It took me a few seconds to realise who he was – I still have a mental image of him during his 1980s heyday, rather than the 75-year-old man he is now. If you wanted to be cruel about it, you could suggest that Philip Glass is the serious music equivalent of Michael Jackson: someone who hit his creative peak back in the eighties, and has been coasting on his former glories ever since. So is The Perfect American his equivalent of dropping dead during a rehearsal at the O2? Happily, despite some notable flaws, the answer is no.
The source material of The Perfect American is a novel by Stephan Jungk, which takes the few things we know about the end of Walt Disney’s life, makes up a few more, and turns them into a meditation on the American Dream. As the opera opens, Disney (Christopher Purves) is in a Burbank hospital, on his deathbed. We meet some of the people he shares his final days with – a nurse who he thinks of as Snow White, and a young boy who idolises him in the way most children would.
Mostly, though, Disney takes this as an opportunity to look back. We see his return to the small town of Marceline that apparently formed the basis of his worldview, a place where ‘dreams can come true, and tomorrow is just a miracle away’. But we also see him ruling over his animation studio with a rod of iron, stomping all over the rights of his army of artists to have their individual contributions recognised.
Gradually, the main theme of the opera makes itself apparent – the chasm between the public image of the Disney philosophy, and the behaviour of the man himself. To be fair, he shows occasional signs of self doubt, worrying that Disney will become the name of a brand rather than a man. But the darker side of his personality keeps coming through: most notably in the climax to act one, where he talks to the Disneyland animatronic dummy of Abraham Lincoln, suggesting to him that he might have got it all wrong about this whole freedom-for-negroes thing. It’s not just that Disney died: it’s that he died in the sixties, staying alive long enough to see all the homespun values he built his life around being torn down one by one.
The Perfect American is directed by Phelim McDermott for Improbable Theatre, the company who successfully revived Glass’ Satyagraha at this venue six years ago. (It returns there in the autumn, and is well worth catching.) As with the earlier work, Dan Potra’s design approach here is intensely visual, with heavy use of projected video. But it’s a very low-tech aesthetic – all hanging cloth screens, and hand-drawn animation de-enhanced with scratches and flickers. The one visible concession to modern technology is a huge rotating projection rig hanging above the stage, able to flip between front and back projection as required.
As with Satyagraha, there’s one flaw in the use of projected images: not much thought has been given to how they appear in the cheapest seats, meaning that some information (including captions telling us locations and dates) gets lost on its way to the balcony. But the visuals are generally bold enough to stand up for themselves, even without their supporting text.
If there’s a weak spot in the production as a whole, unfortunately it would have to be Philip Glass’ music. As has been the case for all the other Glass operas that ENO have produced, The Perfect American seems to be attracting a younger crowd than you’d normally expect at the venue. But you suspect the really cool kids are more likely to be seeing John Adams operas these days. Adams has the same interest in contemporary subject matter, but also has enough melodic talent to pull out a heart-stopper like Batter My Heart (from Doctor Atomic) at least once per opera. Glass, meanwhile, is happy to carry on reworking the same musical motifs that he was using a quarter of a century ago.
Also, it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that his three most famous operas – Akhnaten, Satyagraha and Einstein On The Beach – were written respectively in Egyptian, Sanskrit and numbers. The text isn’t required to carry narrative: once he starts working with an English libretto, Glass seems to have a problem convincingly marrying lyrics to music without the result sounding trite. (Surprisingly, the librettist for The Perfect American is Rudy Wurlitzer, screenwriter of Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid.)
I don’t want to play down Glass’ contribution to The Perfect American – much like Disney, he’s pulling together the efforts of many collaborators into a work that couldn’t exist without him. As a piece of theatre, it’s a fascinating study of the American character, and the contradictions within it. Musically, though, it’s less satisfying. It’s possibly significant that its most dramatically shocking moment – involving a line that starts ‘you were never an artist…’ – is spoken, rather than sung. But I’m not going to hold that against the composer when the other elements tie together so well.
The Perfect American is playing at the Coliseum in London until June 28th. A home video version will be released by Opus Arte in September.
Spank The Monkey knows full well that the first two paragraphs of this article are completely unnecessary, but he likes the story. Sorry.