The Perfect American is an avant-garde imaginative riff on the last year of the life of a resolutely mainstream figure: Walt Disney. That the project of adapting Peter Stephan Jungk’s biographie romancée into an opera was instigated by Philip Glass is particularly intriguing. Glass, while less heavily branded, has become almost as ubiquitous as Disney through his own body of work as well as his influence on others. It is arguably as difficult to conceive of cinematic soundtracks without Glass as it is to think of cartoons and children’s movies without Disney.
Yet, while Disney saw the importance of branding from the very start and wanted nothing more than mainstream success, Glass came to the mainstream from the world of 1970s East Village counter-culture and theatrical experimentation: the world of Robert Wilson and Mabou Mines; one that seeps into Glass’s new opera briefly when Andy Warhol attempts unsuccessfully to get to meet the titular Perfect American but is dismissed. Warhol insists that he has so much in common with Walt as an artist. He admires his patriotism and the directness and accessibility of his work.
The scene throws up all kinds of interesting ideas about Disney’s position as a pop artist in the spirit of Warhol and Lichtenstein (the latter’s first pop work was a Disney illustration called Look Micky from 1961). It doesn’t delve into these issues though and its dramatic potential is quickly dissipated; at the end, there’s a little in-joke, a nod and wink to the audience: “Something about Campbell soup cans”.
It is just one example of many scenes, all fictional but embedded and referencing the real life of Walt Disney, that act as stand-alone vignettes rather than some kind of coherent whole. Earlier on, we have Walt’s meeting with a life-sized, animatronic Abraham Lincoln. It’s a delightful, albeit wacky, idea and visually it’s a marvel with Lincoln attached to “wires” held by members of the Improbable skills ensemble, lending his gestures a jerky, mechanical aspect. The theme’s actual purpose though seems to be thematic, if anything. Like the Warhol scene, it is a gesture and has no particular dramatic action contained within it. We get to hear a bit more about Walt’s bigotry: his sexism, racism, his contempt for his employees but, by that stage, we already know all this.
There are a few ongoing threads that run throughout. Dantine is a disgruntled former employee of Disney’s, returns to exact revenge on the man he believes took credit for his creative work and never had an original idea of his own. When confronted with these accusations though, as he is on more than one occasion, Walt never seems particularly concerned by it. He either dismisses it entirely (as befits his contempt for his employees) or, in a more candid moment talking to an admiring young boy he meets at the hospital, describes himself as a bee pollinating the flowers: a manager, an entrepreneur, the creator of a brand.
None of this is particularly surprising and I kept on wanting the narrative to move beyond this exposé to dig further into the identity of Disney, the man behind the famous signature (not his own either apparently). Perhaps these insights lay somewhere in the dream-like fantastical visitations by Lincoln, Warhol and a little girl called Lucy who is dressed as an owl and may or may not represent Disney’s imminent demise. Perhaps in the context of Jungk’s text, these fragments amount to more than the sum of their baffling parts but this did not come across.
The score didn’t provide the sense of coherence and connection that might have made the piece fully engaging either. Themes recur of course, as they do narratively, but the importance of these has never really been established and it is hard to see their significance within the world of the fiction, let alone how they resonate beyond that. Having said this, many of the scenes are enjoyable in isolation. Baritone Christopher Purves, recently seen in Katie Mitchell’s Written on Skin, gives a towering central performance as the man himself, while Phelim McDermott’s production weaves together physical performance, object manipulation with Ben Wright’s impressively seamless choreography and 59 Productions’ evocative animation and video design. There are visual and aural treats contained within that are a joyous so it’s frustrating that the whole never amounts to as much as much as you keep hoping it might.
Discussing his novel in the programme, Jungk explains that he first wrote it as a play but decided it didn’t work. He then got it out of the drawer around the time of Disney’s 100th Birthday and turned it into a novel. This didn’t come as a surprise. For all the effort that has gone into it, The Perfect American just does not lend itself well to the stage.