Walt Disney is frequently noted and quoted as a dreamer, a doer, and an inspiration for people around the world, which makes it all the more interesting when a famous composer creates an opera dedicated to demonstrating the darker side of Disney.
Philip Glass’ “The Perfect American” shows a Walt Disney that is, ironically, not the quintessential American success story we often see in other retellings of his life.
The opera is based off of Peter Stephan Jungk’s “Der König von Amerika,” a novel which is then based on recollections from Wilhelm Dantine, an Austrian cartoonist who worked for Disney between 1940-1950. The OC Register reports that Dantine’s memories of Disney are less than flattering: “he recalls Disney as a power-hungry racist and misogynist who turned over three of his employees to the House Un-American Activities Committee.”
“I honestly think that if Disney’s family and friends came to see it, they would be inspired by it”
Glass’ opera takes cues from this story and, according to the L.A. Times, shows us Walt Disney contemplating his life as it nears its end. The hospital room that the opera is set in changes to accomodate these thoughts. “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,” Kevin Newbury, director of the Long Beach Opera’s performance of the opera, told the LA. Times.
More notable, Newbury also took pains to address the perspective “The Perfect American” takes on Walt Disney’s life. “There are some light and dark parts to his life,” he says, “but I honestly think that if Disney’s family and friends came to see it, they would be inspired by it.”
Reactions from Walt Disney’s daughter
It is then interesting to note, then, that Diane Disney Miller, Disney’s own daughter, told the L.A. Times that she was “disgusted and angry” with the opera’s portrayal of her father. The contrast between Newbury’s artistic and Miller’s personal points of view highlight the often conflicting views of the man – an idea that’s clearly represented through this opera.
“The Perfect American,” like most biographical re-tellings of a life, is not a perfect representation of a person, but rather a reflection based on a specific perspective. The opera is notable for the way it takes a stance that many may disagree with, and ultimately takes on the challenge of presenting an evidently polarizing view of a culturally powerful man.
Where to watch “The Perfect American”
Tim Mangan, reviewer for the Orange County Register and for a number of other publications, took a more neutral view of the opera: “I checked the internet before seeing the opera, thinking there was more controversy than actually materialized. The opera is passingly critical of Disney, but hardly turns him into a monster. And if the last 10 or 15 minutes of the opera isn’t a loving tribute to the master, with some of the most simply beautiful music Glass has ever written, I don’t know what it is.” His conclusions prove that it takes a real viewing of the show to really know how it portrays Walt Disney.
If you’d like to see the opera for yourself, the Long Beach Opera will be presenting a performance of “The Perfect American” this Saturday, March 18th, at 8:00 PM. You can buy tickets and learn more about the opera online.