Composer: Philip Glass
Conductor: Dennis Russell Davies
Walt Disney: Christopher Purves
Roy Disney: David Pittsinger
Dantine: Donald Kaasch
Lillian Disney: Marie McLaughlin
Hazel George: Janis Kelly
After a short but fantastic escapade in Andalucía where I took in the wonderful sights of Granada, Cordoba and Seville to my heart's content, I was ready for more live music upon meeting up with my friend Nicole in Madrid last weekend. And I did not have to worry. Always the resourceful one, she had landed us prime tickets to the final dress rehearsal of Philip Glass' brand new opera, The Perfect American. Granted, we did not know much about it, except for the fact that it was based on the last days of... Walt Disney, of all people, which was intriguing enough. Not to mention that it would give us the opportunity to check out yet another opera house, El Teatro Real. Last, but not least, we were also shamelessly enjoying the cool factor of being able to witness a new artistic creation before the rest of the world.
The facility, who had been renovated in the 1990s, was welcoming but a bit too modern for my taste, especially when compared to the other European opera houses I have been lucky enough to explore. Once inside the theater, however, things were a little bit more traditional with a stunning embroidered red velvet curtain, an understated but nevertheless impressive chandelier and a huge royal box. As the composer himself democratically took his seat among the rest of us in the full house, we were ready for the show to begin.
Although Walt Disney is a name I've known all my life - Come to think of it, it was probably my first, unconscious taste of American culture - I can't say I was even remotely familiar with the man himself. And apparently ignorance is sometimes true bliss when it comes to popular icons. Inspired by the fictional story written by Peter Stephan Jungk, the opera is letting us know that not only was Walt Disney not the actual creator of many of his famous characters, but that he was also a racist, misogynist, ultra-conservationist megalomaniac (I think I got everything). He had a few redeeming qualities as well, but not that many.
Making such as controversial individual come to life is no easy task, but tenor Christopher Purves had obviously taken charge of his character, warts and all. Beside his supple and assertive voice, he also was enough of a skillful actor to make sure that all the nuances of Disney's complex personality would come through, whether an authoritative empire builder, a fearful cancer patient or a dedicated family man.
As Disney's brother Roy, David Pittsinger was the perfect life-long partner in crime, always eager to support and indulge his world-famous sibling. Donald Kaasch was a very effective trouble-maker in Dantine, powerfully expressing his unrestrained joy at being hired by such a cultural hero and his bitter resentment at being fired for trying to start a union. The leading ladies in Disney's life fared well too: Janis Kelly as the comforting nurse/Snow White and Marie McLaughlin as his rock of a wife.
Other characters, of the more idiosyncratic kind, included Lucy, a strange young girl wearing an owl mask, unfamiliar with Disney's œuvre and unwilling to leave his house. The animatronic Abraham Lincoln allowed for political views to be discussed while remaining in a Disney-created context. And a short but memorable appearance by Andy Wahrol, in a dashing purple velvet suit, brought an irresistible touch of modernity and fun. Although not a character per se, Disney's home-town of Marcelline has a key role in the plot, as it apparently did in his life.
The set was smartly designed with huge "Disney Studios" folders hanging from the ceiling and two old-fashioned movie cameras hovering from the center of it, all constant reminders of the power of cinema in general and the Walt Disney Company in particular. The changing decors were all rather discreet and encouraged the audience to focus its attention on the action unfolding on the stage. That permitted smooth transitions between the various scenes and fostered an agreeable impression of seamless continuation.
I am not a die-hard fan of Philip Glass' music, but I found this particular score very well suited for the story, what with his trademark minimalist basis and driving pulse. Always supporting and never interfering with the voices, which made the singing very vivid and easy to understand, the obviously capable orchestra gave a winning account of the difficult composition in no small part thanks to distinguished English conductor Dennis Russell Davies.
We had been warned that this being the final dress rehearsal, the performance could be interrupted at any moment. But, except for an early technical glitch, everything went on very well and, apart for a few barely noticeable hesitancies, we really felt that we were attending the real thing, and the real thing was pretty good indeed.