by MICHAEL VAN DUZER
Walt Disney was a visionary artist and a canny businessman. He was that rare dreamer who could defy the naysayers and shepherd his dreams into reality. He was a complex man. His carefully constructed public persona of the affable ambassador to all things Disney was designed to hide a shy and taciturn nature. He was a stern taskmaster who doled out little praise and made many enemies. He was a patriot who fought the unions and appeared as a friendly witness before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). He has also been accused of being an imperialist, a racist, an anti-Semite, and a homophobe.
To composer Philip Glass and librettist Rudy Wurlitzer, Walt Disney’s story, in all its knotty intricacy, had an undeniable operatic scope. Using Peter Stephan Jungk’s controversial novel, Der König von Amerika (English title: The Perfect American) as the basis for a new opera, they created The Perfect American which had its world premiere at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2013.
The always audacious Long Beach Opera (LBO) is currently presenting its American premiere. It feels right that an opera based on Walt Disney would face its first American audience in Southern California, and Long Beach makes a certain geographical sense. Sitting, as it does, at roughly the midpoint between Disney’s two most historic landmarks — the Disney Studios in Burbank and Disneyland in Anaheim.
As LBO’s Artistic Director and the conductor for this production, Andreas Mitisek says, “It’s almost an embarrassment that an opera about Walt Disney had to premiere in Madrid… but hasn’t been seen in the U.S. I think we are rectifying something that has been missed.”
The glacial reaction to the opera from the Disney family and, by extension, the Disney Empire argues that the production is an opportunity they would happily have missed. The Perfect American is a controversial biographical portrait. Which is, no doubt, why major American opera companies have shied away from producing the opera, despite its pedigree. Disney family members object to the libretto as revisionist history mixed with outright lies. Though the opera does its best to dispel one of the creepier Disney legends — that of a cryogenically frozen Walt patiently awaiting resurrection.
The opera makes no claims to be a realistic biographical study; it is a hallucinatory vision of Walt Disney’s final days as he comes to terms with his mortality and desperately seeks to protect and preserve his legacy. Nightmarish memories haunt him. We witness the struggle of both the artist and the man, though the piece is anything but a hagiography.
Director Kevin Newbury is adamant that this approach is the perfect choice. “The surreal, non-linear approach is perfect for telling the story of Disney’s life, and it’s one of the things that opera can do better than any other art form… The opera is an acutely theatrical, phantasmagoric look at the life and legacy of one of our most important American icons. Our production tries to unlock the imagination and genius of Disney, grounding the opera in his hospital room just before he dies. I think this heightened approach gives us a chance to go beyond a bio-drama and examine the nature of creativity and the many aspects of Disney’s life (both light and dark) that contributed to his work and his legacy.”
The Disney Company is famously protective of their copyright so, even if the opera had family approval, it’s unlikely that they would allow Disney characters to be used in it. Telling the story of an artist without the ability to use a scrap of his art is a challenge that Newbury and his design team faced head on. As Newbury explains, “It forces us to use our imagination and find ways to evoke the iconic images without breaking any copyright laws. How can two doctor lenses become mouse ears?”
Design elements are an important part of any opera production. But when the subject of the opera is an artist whose work is so familiar, so much a part of the fabric of American culture, the challenge of creating that visual world takes on an added responsibility. As Disney’s most iconic images were created for motion pictures, using video projections in the production was a foregone conclusion.
Sean Cawelti is uniquely qualified to create, not only the videos for the production, but also puppets and shadow play elements. Cawelti is a director, designer, a veteran of several other LBO productions and the Artistic Director of the Rogue Artists Ensemble. A third generation Angeleno, Cawelti spent part of his youth in Orange County, where Disneyland was the place for birthdays and other celebrations. When he was old enough, he applied for a job at Disneyland. He spent six years working for Disney.
Another bit of Disney synchronism occurred last year when Cawelti and his theatre company produced Wood Boy Dog Fish, their adaptation of Pinocchio. Though their production was based on the source material rather than the Disney film, he knew most audience members would have the Disney images firmly in their heads.
Cawelti respects and understands the power of Walt Disney’s imagination, and feels close enough to the man to always refer to him as Walt. “Both when I was approaching Wood Boy Dog Fish, and this production of The Perfect American, I can’t help but come from a place of honoring the legacy that Walt left,” Cawelti says. “This incredible gift that really transformed entertainment, transformed theme parks, and the way that we tell stories in animated films. There’s so many things, he personally, because of the way he saw the world, transformed the way that we see the world.”
Newbury’s directorial concept involves using the hospital room as a constant background and a visual vocabulary for telling the story. To that end, the team has gathered authentic 1960s hospital equipment, including period medicine bottles and boxes of bandages. Newbury and Cawelti developed ways for the singers to stack these items into carefully constructed piles during the performance. When the story moves from the confines of the hospital room, these piles can be lit to form a shadow image of the new location — the farm on which Walt and Roy Disney grew up, or the castle at Disneyland.
With the Disney Archives closed to him, Cawelti explored other institutions, like the Anaheim Heritage Center and the Natural History Museum. He discovered that both housed reams of interesting Disney-related ephemera. From these collections, and selected online repositories, Cawelti has amassed an amazing array of historical pictures, documents, blueprints and even home movies of families visiting Disneyland in the 50s and 60s. “I hope that those folks that are versed in the Disney lore and mythology will pick out the Easter eggs that I’ve tried to plant in there, so subtly,” he says, “to connect with some of the real history and his life.”
Unable to visualize a life of Disney without Mickey Mouse, Cawelti finally landed on the idea of using an X-ray of a mouse. An intriguingly oblique indication of the iconic character that also aligns with Newbury’s hospital motif.
The opera features a controversial and revealing scene in which Disney shares some of his most private thoughts with an animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Cawelti is very excited about the puppet he’s created for this moment. The figure stands nearly nine feet tall and is a mashup of prosthetic limbs and other hospital paraphernalia with the Lincoln originally created for the 1964 World’s Fair. For Cawelti, the combination of the real and the fantastical in the puppet is a perfect physicalization of the opera’s surreal essence. He adds, “I think he’s also quite scary in some way, and that’s also important for the storytelling in the opera; that he feels larger-than-life and powerful. I’m excited to see how he plays.”
LBO has a long history with Philip Glass, having produced his full-length operas, Akhnaten and Hydrogen Jukebox, along with some shorter works. At 80, Glass can look back on an incredibly busy and successful career composing opera, symphonic music, songs, dance music, film scores and incidental music for plays. The Perfect American, with its focus on a historical character, harkens back to his early Portrait Trilogy of biographical operas: Einstein on the Beach, Satygraha and Akhenaten, inspired by the lives of Einstein, Gandhi and Akhnaten, the Egyptian monotheist Pharaoh.
The Portrait Trilogy, particularly in their original productions, have long been acknowledged as seminal works in modern music drama. But the premiere of Akhnaten was in 1984. Glass has had 30 years of artistic growth and dramatic maturity to lavish on the score for The Perfect American. Justin Ryan, who sings Walt Disney in the production, speaks to both the high drama and the subtlety he finds when singing the role.
“Philip has given us a searing, emotional score in The Perfect American, but the music stretches the emotion out of time in a style that is unmistakably Glass’ own. The dialogue sometimes rides over this undercurrent, but the music guides the story and is a constant subtext.”
Newbury also sees Glass as a perceptive dramatist, providing multiple opportunities for deepening the story. “I find Glass’ music to be incredibly emotional, taking us into the minds and hearts of his characters,” ventures Newbury. “His interludes are particularly fun for a director, providing opportunities to tell story, and make transitions that can inform the story from a purely musical point-of-view.”
In preparing for the role, Ryan learned all he could of the different sides of Walt Disney. Rehearsals gave him a clearer view of Disney’s emotionally tumultuous journey. Now, as he enters performances, he’s found a certain clarity. “Walt approaches death with the same tenacity and determination he devoted to his work — survival of the brand becomes intertwined with that of the person, and death becomes another obstacle to overcome. We know death is a constant, but if there is one salesperson in our times who might convince the universe of the inconstancy of death, it is Walt Disney.”
In the end, The Perfect American is the journey of an artist running out of time. As Disney lays in his hospital bed, his thoughts are on his legacy. What will remain of his work? How will he be remembered? Universal questions that resonate with us all.
NOW PLAYING: THE PERFECT AMERICAN at Long Beach Opera, through March 18.