Every good fairy tale has a dark side.
Perhaps nobody knew that better than Walt Disney. The creator of “Bambi” and “Snow White” never shied from exploiting the grimmer nature of humanity as a plot device.
Does that mean Disney, the man, had his own secrets and demons? “The Perfect American,” Philip Glass’ fictionalized opera about the famous animator, imagined a complicated answer to that question. Before she died at age 80 in 2013, Disney’s daughter Diane Disney Miller said she was “disgusted and angry” with the way her father had been portrayed.
The opera, which is sung in English, is based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel “Der König von Amerika,” a less-than-rosy telling of Disney’s life that intertwines real events with imagined ones.
New York City Opera commissioned “The Perfect American” in 2008, but because of financial hiccups and personnel changes at that company, the work received its world premiere in Spain at the Teatro Real in Madrid in 2013.
No major American opera company has produced it since. Most notably Los Angeles Opera passed on the piece; a board member told The Times in 2013 that she couldn't imagine the company producing work that could insult such an important L.A. family.
"It could very well come in from a side door rather than the front door," Glass said in an interview at the time, noting that “It’s not the end of the world if a smaller company did it.”
Enter Long Beach Opera, which will present “The Perfect American” on Sunday and March 18 in the 3,000-plus-seat Terrace Theater of the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center. Andreas Mitisek, artistic and general director of Long Beach Opera, thought it was an obvious choice for his company.
“I think it has to be done here in the area where Walt Disney made his biggest impact,” Mitisek says. “I knew there was some hesitation in other opera companies, so we asked Philip Glass if he was willing to give us the U.S. premiere. Based on our history with his works and the successes we had with them, he was very happy to grant us that.”
Long Beach Opera has created a new production for the U.S. premiere — one that director Kevin Newbury says is “all about magic, wonder and imagination.”
The opera is set in Disney’s hospital room at the end of his life. Faced with mortality, Disney contemplates his life, death and legacy. As he does, the hospital room around him animates in the truest sense of the word.
Stethoscopes, lenses, plastic forks and prosthetic limbs transform into an owl costume or a Disneyland-esque animatronic Abraham Lincoln. Inside an illuminated X-ray box, the image of Disney’s cancerous lung morphs into an animation cel, revealing the skeletal X-ray of a mouse. During one musical interlude, doctor’s gloves become animator’s gloves as Disney is magically transported back to his Burbank studio.
“We decided to take a fantastical and phantasmagoric approach, so we really embrace the structure of the piece and how it traverses time and space by using everything that would be in a hospital in 1966,” Newbury says.
After seeing the Madrid opening, Times critic Mark Swed called it “a great American opera that needs to be seen in L.A.,” a piece that at once managed to feel “far from sterilized yet also disarmingly affectionate.” The New York Times and the Guardian said the European production was strong musically but weak dramatically because of its episodic nature and long, drawn-out musical interludes.
Newbury sees those qualities not as a weakness but as a source of dramatic opportunity.
“The sound of Philip’s music just feels like thought and rumination to me, like somebody going over his or her life,” the director says. “One of the things that I love about Philip’s music and his operas in general is that there are so many musical interludes and interstitial music. It allows us to tell so much story.”
Baritone Justin Ryan, who will play Disney in the Long Beach production, agrees.
“There is a story in the score,” he says. “It so much relies on the interpretation of the production of the opera because there is so much to be filled in visually. I think the reading of the previous production may have been a little bit literal.”
Glass has broken new ground for himself with “The Perfect American,” Ryan says. Although the music for the opera, the composer’s 25th, is quintessentially and recognizably Glassian, Ryan sees more of a traditional story arc here than in Glass’ more abstract operatic biographies like “Einstein on the Beach” or “Akhnaten.”
“This is really a story,” he says. “And how appropriate for Walt, who is perhaps the greatest storyteller we have had.”
Telling this story requires nuance and more than a little directorial imagineering. For Newbury, who has brought characters like Queen Elizabeth and Richard Nixon to life on the opera stage and who this summer will direct the world premiere of composer Mason Bates’ biographical opera about Steve Jobs, the most interesting thing about an icon is the unknown.
“There is so much that we know about these people,” Newbury says, “but there is even more that we don’t know. There are a lot of blanks to be filled in, and the operatic form is perfectly suited for telling the story of a larger-than-life character.”
Newbury says he takes the responsibility of telling Disney’s story seriously. “There are some light and dark parts to his life,” he notes, “but I honestly think that if Disney’s family and friends came to see it, they would be inspired by it.”
Adds Mitisek: “It is a very humanizing portrayal, and Philip Glass certainly had no intention to smear Walt Disney. He’s too experienced of an artist himself. He understands this journey.”
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‘The Perfect American’
Where: Terrace Theater, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach
When: 2:30 p.m. March 12, 8 p.m. March 18
Tickets: $49-$150 (subject to change)
Information: (562) 470-7464, Ext. 101, www.longbeachopera.org
Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes (with one intermission)
Follow The Times’ arts team @culturemonster.