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Walt Disney gets the Philip Glass opera treatment in 'The Perfect American'

by John Horn and The Frame Staff | The Frame

Walt Disney's last days are imagined in the opera, "The Perfect American." Keith Ian Polokoff/Long Beach Opera

Back in 2008, Philip Glass was commissioned to write music for a new opera about Walt Disney.

“The Perfect American” was intended for the New York City Opera, but so far it’s only been staged in Europe and Australia. 

Now, it’s being mounted by the adventurous Long Beach Opera. The director is Kevin Newbury, who has a long list of credits directing opera and theater. Newbury and The Frame's John Horn spoke recently. They discussed the “The Perfect American,” the book it's based on, and the portrayal of the complicated character that was Walt Disney.

Interview Highlights:

On portraying Walt Disney and the difference between the stage adaptation and the book:

The book and the opera take a very well-rounded view of Disney and the man. I think the idea of genius and legacy and looking back on your life and what you leave behind is very universal. Even though the opera and [Peter Stephan Jung's] novel both touch on some of the darker sides of his personality, it's nothing that you don't see on the PBS American Experience documentary, which was really influential for me putting the show together. For me, it's really about imagination and wonder. And [about] someone who really changed the way that the world thinks about childhood and about storytelling and about animals and animation — everything that he did. Theme parks — the event of going somewhere with your family and experiencing another world. How did someone like that actually think and what were the influences on his life? For me it feels like a really balanced portrait of a complicated genius. 

On finding similarities between Walt Disney and his own work as an opera director:

There's a scene near the end of the opera where Walt is awaiting cancer treatment with a young boy who has cancer. It's my favorite part of the whole show. The young boy asks him, How do you do two million Snow White drawings? How did you do all of that? He said, I didn't do all of that. I have people that I work with. She says — it's played by a woman — What exactly do you do? He says, I'm a curator. I bring people together, recognize the talents in people and try to bring that out. And that's exactly what I do as a director every day. Ultimately, the message of the piece is about magic and wonder and imagination, and getting back to that instinct of openness and play that we have as children.

On what Philip Glass' music contributes to the story:

What I love about Philip's music is that it's so emotional and it feels to me like the act of rumination and remembering and going over things in one's head. It's very phantasmagoric and it gets us into the head of Walt Disney as he approaches the end of his life. At his premature death of 66, how does he look back at all the things that influenced him? Philip's music just transcends time and space to me. He plays with different kinds of Americana themes that relate to Disney, but then he turns them on their head. He has wonderful long interludes, which give me and my design team and cast a chance to really explore the story, even beyond what's in the libretto. So through transitions and light cues, it's very magical and imaginative. And I just think that churning quality of Philip's music — it just feels like the act of remembering and grappling with history.

On how the librettist Rudy Wurlitzer helped contribute to the show's themes:

The approach to the opera is that it's very non-linear and phantasmagoric. It traverses time and space. It transcends just being a bio show and really gets under the skin of Disney and the many facets of his personality and legendary status. 

On constructing original staging:

I always watch the previous productions. In this case, the production that was done in Madrid and London. I watched it once so I knew what they had done and then I tried to forget about it. It's responsible as a director to at least watch it once to make sure I don't inadvertently have the same idea and look like I'm copying. For us, it was a great springboard because what we wanted to do with the show was totally different. We set the entire thing in the hospital right before Walt's death. We have a lot of video design and it's all about re-appropriating things that would be in the hospital. So how do beds become the train that Walt rides around his backyard? How do we use pill bottles and hospital supplies to make a shadow of Cinderella's castle? Of course, we can't use any of the images from Mickey Mouse and Disney World. There's a few in the public domain, but most of them are off limits to us. So how do we get into the mind of a creative genius without using his own work? That is such a thrill. It's a wonderful opportunity for a director and a design team to figure out how to do that without breaking any copyright laws. 

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