The perfect time for the ‘Perfect American’


Philip Glass, who turned 76 the last day of January, held a large sway over opera and music during 2013. Walt Disney, who died 47 years ago this month, held his own sway over classical music and opera. One sway, moreover, led to and importantly illuminated another over the last year.

Things began with the premiere at the Teatro Real in Madrid of Glass’ 23rd opera, “The Perfect American,” a spiritually revealing account of Disney’s soul-searching final days. The year ended with the Walt Disney Pictures release of a sort-of-soul-searching (but not really) Uncle Walt while making “Mary Poppins,” his last film.

In between, Glass’ 24th opera, “The Lost,” opened a new opera house in Linz, Austria, and his first opera, “Einstein on the Beach,” became the first Glass opera presented by Los Angeles Opera, proving both an artistic sensation and boffo box office.


PHOTOS: Operas by Philip Glass

As for Disney, who could miss the name? The Walt Disney Concert Hall turned 10 and the Los Angeles Philharmonic celebrated extravagantly and daringly.

Perhaps Walt might not have squirmed too much in his seat were he to have been around for the anniversary gala, which opened with Gustavo Dudamel leading the L.A. Phil and Yo-Yo Ma in John Cage’s “4’33”,” the belated (by more than six decades) first performance by a major U.S. orchestra of the most famously controversial silent score.

That went down surprisingly easy by a celebrity gala crowd, including a few from the Disney and formerly Disney studio ranks. But you can only imagine Walt’s ire over Frank Zappa’s salaciously vulgar “200 Motels,” which Esa-Pekka Salonen led in a puerilely staged performance on the actual Disney Hall anniversary.

And if you believe the Disney family, which was angrily dismissive of “The Perfect American,” Glass’ account of a legend’s insecurities was more cause for Walt to spin in his Forest Lawn grave, whether you buy the myth that he was cryogenically frozen or not. In actual fact, the opera does far more to glorify Disney, as only great opera can, than Disney’s own studio manages with “Saving Mr. Banks,” in which Tom Hanks stars as an affable Uncle Walt mollifying Emma Thompson’s P.L. Travers, the irascible Australian author of the Mary Poppins novels, to a predictable heartwarming end.

WATCH: Cast and crew discuss ‘Saving Mr. Banks’


But once you wipe the tear from your eyes, all you’re left with is a conventionally wan Walt displaying little more than a pleasant vision. “The Perfect American,” on the other hand, returns Disney to his artist roots.

What Glass reveals through exuberantly stunning and somberly music is a Disney who needed art and needed its magic every day to get past his self-doubts. He needed to create a world of wonder without death to cope with his fear of it. He needed art’s sweetness to counter some of his own bitterness.

Disney saw his visionary stamp cover the world, just as Glass’ musical stamp is doing a pretty good job of that these days. And no one is better suited to kindle the conflicts between commercial art and high art than Glass. Andy Warhol appropriately gets into the act as well, making an appearance in the opera and claiming Disney as his greatest influence. This is the Disney we cannot ignore, underestimate or easily understand.

“Saving Mr. Banks” has no interest in saving that Mr. Disney. The most important line in the film is Disney explaining that he understands Travers’ intransigence because he had been the same way about Mickey Mouse. But that is not developed. Father issues, instead, become the common thread between Disney and Travers, as a way to sentimentalize the story.

Disney in Glass’ opera is complex. He is vainglorious. He is inconsistent. His ideals and racial prejudices are at war. A heavy smoker, he is stalked by cancer. But he rises to the most demanding occasions. In an extraordinarily heroic and visionary realization of Disney by baritone Christopher Purvis — surely the operatic performance of the year — we witness a great man’s attempt to hang on to, and transmit to a new generation, a sense of wonder even as it is being wrenched away from him.

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Forty years earlier, Glass had begun his opera career with a portrait of Albert Einstein, and it is about wonder too, and wonder’s loss. The scientist used trains to explain relativity. Walt also loved trains. He saw locomotion as a way out of the small Midwest town in which he grew up. Trains represented for both of these icons a future in which anything is possible.

A telling late scene in “Perfect American” opens with Walt riding a model train at his Holmby Hills home — accompanied by an exuberant “choo choo” chorus that recalls the revolutionary train music of “Einstein” — Walt is interrupted by an embittered former employee who accuses Walt of union busting, taking credit for the work of an army of animators. He calls Disney nothing more than a moderately successful CEO.

A successful studio head is pretty much the Disney of “Saving Mr. Banks.” For that studio today, saving Mr. Disney is simply to Disneyfy him, to make him just like everything else.

Thanks to Glass, Disney remains real and becomes meaningful. He is an imperfect man and an imperfect artist able to rise to greatness. At one point in the opera, Walt complains that he no longer owned his name, his studio did. His name is now on a concert hall that has been perhaps the biggest boon to classical music than anything else the past decade, seemingly for no better reason than that his widow gave the money to build the hall. This opera is the better reason.

Thanks to Glass as well, “Einstein” became the perfect American opera in which L.A. Opera got its moxie back after an unadventurous couple of years. Should the Disneys now rethink their objections to “Perfect American” and perhaps even sponsor an L.A. production? It makes perfect sense.