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Opera review: Walt Disney in fantasyland

MADRID — Walt Disney was hardly a perfect American.

He may have been the most famous and beloved American during his lifetime. But his private magic kingdom was not always the happiest place on Earth. Disney had his own private torments and is reputed to have railed against unions, blacks and Jews.

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At least that is part of the 21st century Disney legend, and it is necessarily part of Philip Glass’ new opera, “The Perfect American.” Far from sterilized yet also disarmingly affectionate, it looks at Disney the myth, the artist and the man. The work contrasts between the America that formed Walt Disney and the America he formed for the rest of us.

And that is what makes Disney a perfect American opera character, even if it took Spain to bring Glass’ “The Perfect American” to the lyric stage. The premiere (in English) was Tuesday night here at the Teatro Real.

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PHOTOS: The Perfect American

Glass delves deep into the psyche of a visionary at the end of his life, of an artist who devoted his life to a vision of a world without death, now grappling with mortality. By most counts this is Glass’ 24th opera, and it is his most personally intimate. It does what opera does best by making the larger-than-life creator of Mickey Mouse an imperfect life-size, ultimately earning our wonderment.

A small, artificial controversy had built up around the premiere, mostly instigated by the British press when word got out that “The Perfect American” would depict a bigoted Disney. Even Glenn Beck asked why Disney is being painted as a racist and misogynist.

Glass’ project began in the United States, when Belgian opera impresario Gerard Mortier commissioned it for the struggling New York City Opera in 2008. When the money was cut, Mortier took “The Perfect American” to Madrid.

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American novelist and screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer wrote the quick-moving libretto, which is based on a German novel by Peter Stephan Jungk. A recurring image is an owl that Disney killed as a boy. He had been told an owl was an ominous sign; the opera suggests he never got over the incident.

In the prologue, a delirious, dying Disney imagines the owl overhead in his hospital bed. In one of many flashbacks, Lucy, a neighbor girl, shows up at his Holmby Hills home trick-or-treating in an owl costume, causing a commotion. Back in the hospital, a hallucination of Lucy as the owl is Disney’s last vision.

This is a Walt Disney whose whole career can then be seen as a spectacular effort to overcome his demons. He creates fantasylands where there is no death, no threat, no blood. But in his dying, Disney must confront those demons with his defenses down. In Glass’ opera, Disney does this as an artist.

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The first act is the public Disney. With his brother and partner, Roy, Walt returns to the small Midwest town where he grew up (it became the model for Disneyland’s Main Street) and where he is worshiped like a god to donate a public swimming pool. The libretto jumps between time and place, always showing Disney in command. In his hospital bed he hopes to defy death, fascinated with the new theories of cryogenics (although the rumors that he was actually frozen have long been dismissed).

In his office at his Burbank studio years earlier, he and Roy recall triumphs and plot the future. At a birthday party, Glass gives Walt a bright new tune for Happy Birthday.

In the act’s final scene, Disney goes to Anaheim late at night to help repair the animatronic Disneyland Lincoln, which has been malfunctioning and attacking members of the audience. Disney gets in an argument with the robot about blacks, and Lincoln goes crazy again and whacks Walt.

The second act is the inner Disney, the insecure artist. Andy Warhol pays a surprise visit to tell Disney how much he loves the work. A fired animator, Dantine, accuses Disney of exploiting his workers and of having little artistic talent. (Disney counters with his ability to bring his visions into being.) As he lay dying in 1966, 10 days after his 65th birthday, Disney befriends an injured, awe-struck young boy, Josh, who becomes his savior.

Glass’ repetitive style is recognizable throughout, but with this opera he shows more harmonic richness than ever, which seems just right for every situation, mood or thought.

The production by British director Phelim McDermott, who was responsible for the Metropolitan Opera’s impressive production of Glass’ Gandhi opera, “Satyagraha,” five years ago, celebrates Disney’s drawings with projections on moving screens. A group of funky animators seems to operate all that goes on on stage. The characters are wild yet believable, even and especially the animatronic Lincoln.

PHOTOS: The Perfect American

Baritone Christopher Purves has captured in Disney the charisma, arrogance and humanity of the man, and it’s already a candidate for one of the most important opera performances of the year. He makes racist or anti-Semitic remarks sound not like tirades but like attitudes that were all too common at the time, especially around Los Angeles. One of the points of “The Perfect American” is to show us how much times have changed.

The rest of the mostly excellent large cast includes David Pittsinger as Roy Disney, Donald Kaasch as Dantine, Janis Kelly as Disney’s nurse Hazel George, Marie McLaughlin as his wife, Lillian, and John Easterlin as Warhol. Rosie Lomas made a strong impression in the high-lying parts of the owl-girl Lucy and Josh, the boy in the hospital. And Zachary James had a touch of Daniel Day-Lewis in his Lincoln.

Dennis Russell Davies, who has led the premieres of most of Glass’ operas and symphonies, once more made sure of tone and detail.

This production will next be presented at English National Opera in London this June. Then Los Angeles? There is no guarantee, but this is a great American opera that needs to be seen in L.A. And it is also the only great L.A. opera.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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