Man in the Middle: On Philip Glass
In 2008, when Satyagraha, Philip Glass’s opera about Gandhi, came to the Met, one critic touted it as an unlikely triumph. “Good people,” the critic remarked, rarely make “good subjects for operas.” If Philip Glass succeeded against the odds with Satyagraha, it was because he had redefined the stakes: How deep into a person’s actual life did a profile have to dig in order to find something essential about him?
The composer had long been wrestling with the question—and almost always to rewarding effect. Glass jettisoned early the idea of a conventional plot or a straight-on likeness. In Einstein on the Beach (1976), the figure of Albert Einstein is a recurring image—but not a rounded character. He appears onstage in his iconic poof of whiteness, with a hoary mustache and wispy bouffant, but says nothing. Nearby, dancers careen in springy, staccato movements, while electronic music washes over the stage in repeating, wavelike ripples. However inscrutable the forms and sounds, there is something searching and revelatory about it all. One attendee at an early performance, a musician who was initially irritated and bored by the five-hour spectacle, famously described a kind of conversion experience: “I began to perceive…a whole world where change happens so slowly and carefully that each new harmony or rhythmic addition or subtraction seemed monumental.” Einstein was a eureka moment slowed to a crawl. In a sense, it was a profile of genius—of illumination—more than it was a picture of a specific genius.
Thus began the composer’s so-called portrait operas, reflections on revolutionary male figures from Einstein to Gandhi to the Egyptian pharaoh Akhnaten. Glass was after their auras. Satyagraha, for instance, which premiered in 1980, trained itself on specific historical moments in Gandhi’s life. Yet it also came encased in an untranslated Sanskrit libretto, taken from the Bhagavad-Gita. You could approach the story head-on, as it were, following the biographical particulars, but you also had to accept that the actual words of the portrait extended beyond your comprehension (unless you knew Sanskrit). Understanding Glass’s Gandhi meant feeling the transcendent force of his spirituality rather than merely surveying it intellectually.
On the heels of these riveting sketches of “good people,” it would seem inapposite to add that, for Glass, “bad” people make “bad subjects” for operas. But “badness” can be all the more vexing onstage when there’s little else for it to illuminate by contrast. Could too much darkness—as opposed to too much light—ever be the fatal flaw of a Philip Glass opera? So it is with The Perfect American, Glass’s new opera about the life and death of Walt Disney. The show premiered in January in Madrid at the Teatro Real and ended its run on February 6; it travels to London in June. In this, his twenty-fourth opera, Glass sets down two stories about Disney that rarely overlap. One is told by the music. Glass’s score, as always, is built around episodic moments and meditative explorations, but has a plusher melodic register than usual; he has described the tonal palette as consisting mostly of “primary colors,” as befits Disney himself. The other story is the arid libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer, which is based on a flimsy novel by Peter Stephan Jungk; both texts blot out all that could be affecting and dramatic about the man. To Wurlitzer and Jungk, the art of portraiture devolves into dark imprecation: the eclipse of the myth of Disney’s wholesomeness with a counter-myth drawn to darken every bright spot. It often feels like revisionism for revisionism’s sake, and in artistic terms the opera is something of a dud.
This is disappointing, because Walt Disney’s life is a rich subject. The son of a socialist, he went on to champion right-wing causes, bankrolling Republicans, battling unions and naming names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Through it all, he was a consummate symbol of Horatio Alger–style success: an indefatigable dreamer and shrewd assayer of popular tastes. The greater the heights he scaled as an icon, the more precariously, too, he could seem to teeter as a man. His twilight years were clouded by woes about debt, careening obsessions and ill health.
There is hardly any need to embellish these highs and lows, operatic as they are in their own right. Disney’s singular achievements made him into a larger-than-life cultural figure, but they also eventually flattened him into a generic success story and, in the end, a faceless brand. Take his signature, the puckish, semi-cursive scrawl that appeared on all of Disney’s products: it was restyled by a studio hand, and Disney had trouble duplicating the autograph himself. The ersatz public face won out over the real-life visage. And who was the genuine article, anyway? Relatively early in his career, Disney was no longer able to draw the figures that would make him famous. He had to rely on more skillful draftsmen in his studio, often acting out the mannerisms and characteristics of the figures so others could fill them in.
Jungk’s novel takes Disney’s authorship as its starting point, although not to plumb the depths of his presumably tormented psyche. Instead, Jungk is out to brand Disney a fraud. A disgruntled former draftsman named Wilhelm Dantine stalks his aging employer and finally has it out with him. Chief among the indignities: Disney has stolen Dantine’s work and passed it off as his own, and later sacks Dantine for signing a petition critical of Disney’s stewardship of the company. At the climactic moment of their confrontation, Dantine disparages Disney with a remark that also appears in the libretto: “All you are is a moderately/ Successful CEO./ Nothing more than that.” It’s a clunky, awkwardly unidiomatic dig, and the novel rarely works up much more nuance or fluency. This is no small problem for the version of the story Wurlitzer has transposed to the stage. If the guy was, to the core, nothing but an unremarkable CEO, then what are we here to watch?
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