There’s a reasonable chance I’m going to paint myself as a philistine next, but here goes: a few weeks ago, I went to the opera.
The show in question was Philip Glass’ The Perfect American, based upon a novel by one Peter Stephan Jungk, which recounts the end of the life of Walt Disney: creator of magical movies; inspirer of modern artists and sickly children; belover of Small Town America; and, supposedly, persecutor of inferior races, artistic underlings and nocturnal wildlife. If that seems a slightly unlikely eulogy right there, here’s the story in (relative) brief:
The Perfect American opens with Disney languishing in a hospital bed, tormented with nightmares and longing to return to his home-town, Marceline, and the first act takes us there as he and his brother Roy relate their idyllic youth and then open a public swimming pool in the town, witnessed not just be admiring townsfolk but also a disgruntled former employee, Dantine.
Following this, Disney laments his failing health and entreats his family to preserve him cryogenically after his death; he plans his Disneyland empire with Roy, criticising ugly modernity as he does (while comparing himself to Edison and Ford, incidentally); and boasts of greater fame than Santa Claus, Moses, Zeus and Jesus.
Good news arrives about his health, but while celebrating his 65th birthday a mysterious young girl appears in the guise of a Halloween owl, professing no knowledge of Disney’s magical creations. He throws her out of his house, only then realising he has vanquished a childhood demon based on his one act of cruelty towards animals, which itself inspired the devotion he showed to them in his work.
The first act ends on Disney’s encounter with his idol, Abraham Lincoln – a malfunctioning Frankenstein’s animatr-onster, lumbering and brokenly reciting slivers of philosophy which Disney realises he no longer shares.
The second, somewhat shorter act begins with Andy Warhol gatecrashing Disney’s studio to demand an audience with the man who inspired him, only to be turned away by Roy. Disney is confronted by Dantine at his home, denying his claims for recognition or compensation for the endless hour of drawing he did in service to the company and dismissing him as a left-wing nut, accused of theft and being a mere businessman in return.
In hospital again, Disney is diagnosed with cancer and given no more than two years to live; much reduced, he encounters a young boy who idolises him and they walk together. In reply to questions about how he could personally draw all the pictures required to make a cartoon, Disney boasts of his storytelling and motivational abilities, but his strength is gone and Disney dies; his spirit observes as his family and the chorus sing about the idealistic sweetness of Marceline, then the owl girl appears and leads him away.
The epilogue has Dantine arrive to pay his respects at Disney’s funeral only to learn that, against his wishes, the body was cremated rather than preserved for future revival.
So. Looking at my summary there, it seems to me now that there are interesting themes in the The Perfect American. Disney’s comparing of himself to Ford and Edison while simultaneously lamenting modernism, and his apparent need to exorcise a demon that also inspired his greatest work, suggests interesting contradictions in his motivations. However, while I was parked up in the Gods of Madrid’s Teatro Real, not an awful lot of this was making its way into my consciousness. Philistine, you see: I went to the opera, but I didn’t really like it.
Not, let me be clear, because there was nothing special to look at from way up there. Although the stage itself was mostly a study in minimalism, looming over it were a pair of huge, industrial, rotating arms from which a variety of sketchily animated images were projected onto the wings, or onto sheets of transparent cloth that themselves descended from these arms and were regularly torn away and replaced in new configurations; a variety of scenarios or impressions were thus presented: confining bars in the hospital, the four walls of Disney’s house, even a mobile backdrop of his home-town. Very modern in its style; you wonder if Walt would have approved.
Perhaps yes, perhaps no. The effect produced was never less than striking, but I found the choreography taking place beneath, behind and occasionally within those illuminated drapes more than a little… dull. With the exception of eight or so dynamic figures–sometimes representing the oppressed animators, at others the masked figments of Disney’s fever-struck imagination–and the comic-relief strutting of Andy Warhol, most of the players rather plodded about the stage; the chorus tended to drift like footage of a crowd slowly played back frame-by-frame, maybe with exactly that in mind, but the result was hardly electrifying.
A notable but not particularly surprising absence from the visual presentation was any trace of Disney’s proprietary characters, of almost anything that even passingly resembled the man’s (or is that the corporation’s?) iconic output. Suggesting, if the play does, that their founder might have been a racist probably doesn’t open many collaborative doors, but (and I felt much the same about Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master in relation to Scientology’s heavyweights) somehow I doubt the current crop of Disney execs are losing too much sleep about this thing. The upshot is that you can forget about mice, ducks and buck-toothed dogs, because the dominant animal on stage here is the rabbit. I can easily imagine Bugs Bunny sniggering at the fact.
Obviously, with this being an opera, I’m saving the most important thing for last. The music. Before I get castigated for being prejudiced, let me just say, some of my best friends are operas. Er, er, Turandot, that’s a great piece of music. Nessun dorma–the Flower Duet–I don’t hate operas!
…anyway, when the curtain raised, my first impression was pretty good in fact. The score struck me as quite cinematic, if that isn’t too back-handed a compliment; however, as things progressed it felt increasingly that, given the plodding action on display, these dramatic tones were something of a necessity. Much like the soundtrack to an otherwise very worthy documentary on, for example, the final resolving of some great mathematical puzzle, forcing upon the audience a sensation of drama that is inherently absent–I am not just making a simile, that is exactly what the music reminded me of: a documentary about maths being made exciting.
And after the music, of course, the vocal performances. Unsurprisingly, everyone sang well; some of the higher register female voices didn’t reach all the way to our seats at the top quite as well as the meatier male ones, but I had no complaints… as such… but…
Okay, I have a complaint. Feeling a little like Chris Rock as I say it, I guess there are some kinds of opera I don’t like. My kind of opera has a tune, the vocals and music collaborate towards forming a melody. But then there’s that other kind of opera. The kind where tune is some kind of abstract notion best explored via a contrast with it’s opposite. The M-word kind. Modern. And it’s those M-wordz what is fuckin’ it up for the rest of opera. In my opinion.
And it’s not helped out by the script, by the way. I don’t know if “script” is the correct word in operatic circles; it might not even be the right one in this case either, because though the orchestra’s output was cinematic in style the things actually being “sung” to it were absolutely not. They were, on the whole, conversationally mundane. I struggled to pick an appropriate quote from the piece for my title: my final choice, Stretch out so we can enter the laughing room together, is hardly representative of the average line (nor the amount of leg-room), but I did find myself restraining the odd snort of disbelief, such as when Walt “sang” a question along the lines of Did you know, Mi-ckey is more po-pu-lar in Co-lum-bi-a than Jee-zuhs? and his brother replied, I did not knooow thaaaat. Read these lines aloud with a randomly rising and falling pitch and you go some way to recreating my experience of The Perfect American. To my ear, performance-wise, it all came off sounding like a laboured joke.
A PAVAROTTI-LIKE HUSBAND enters his 50s Americana sit-com-set home. He is greeted by his OPERATIC WIFE. Both loudly project their lines using a randomly selected note for each syllable. HUSBAND: Hi Ho-ney I'm hohhh-ome! WIFE: Did you have a nice daaay dear? HUSBAND: Yehhhs. Continue for 90 minutes.
The above is why I don’t think that script is the right word for this thing, either, because any prospective TV or film featuring such blah dialogue as this thing often does would be spiked–or rewritten–long before it ever reached an audience. For this weirdly flat dialogue to then be belted out by fluctuating baritones proved, to me, the next bridge after the bridge too far. And it didn’t rhyme.
There. Now’s the point at which you can justifiably crow, Philistine! He wants opera to rhyme! The fool knows nothing! And the thing is, I know that opera doesn’t rhyme (except by occasional coincidence, as in this case). I know that The Phantom of the Opera isn’t one. So I guess that, as well as being melodic, my kind of opera is probably in Italian too, not English, so half the lines can end on an ethereal vowel sound instead of an Anglo-Saxon kludge noise, and ordinaries like me can hum along to British Airways commercials and imagine we enjoy high culture (because, however indirectly, we are doing). Understand me, I love the English language, it’s expressive and inventive and lets us say a million things in endless different ways, and it rhymes so well—
It just doesn’t make sense! Why would anyone want people to sing, in English, and not have it rhyme?
I don’t think The Perfect American works, is the shorthand version. Yet, like I said before, there is something quite interesting in the suggested motives of Walt Disney, even if it took over a week of occasional contemplation and a re-read of the program notes for me to tease it out. Possibly the true home of this story, after the novel, should have been the cinema, or just the straight theatre (so to speak), only for the slight stumbling block of Disney’s post-mortem existence as a globe-spanning media powerhouse to make that a particularly hard sell. Maybe the relatively obscure world of opera is the only way it could get out there without endangering itself.
Regardless, I suspect Tinkerbell and Co. were never going to be the main threat to Mr. Glass when he took this one on. Forget about rotating projectors and silken screens, the case has been closed on who animated opera best since 1957. Bugs still has the last word.