Man in the Middle: On Philip Glass

Man in the Middle: On Philip Glass

Philip Glass’s new opera, The Perfect American, is a mix of bluster and inspiration.


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?

* * *

Yet the novel’s allure as a source is plain enough: it provides an easy solution to the problem of how to structure the opera. Wurlitzer has organized the story around a series of set-pieces meant to draw out Disney’s darker side. The first act shuttles between past and present and proves overly busy and uneven, if also entrancing at points. There is Disney visiting his hometown and inaugurating a local swimming pool (“Everything that I have/ And always wanted to have/ Comes from Marceline.”); Disney in a hospital room, by turns bemoaning his mortality and extolling his own greatness (“I’m afraid of the other side./ That my whole empire will collapse”); Disney at his studio headquarters talking politics and market share with his brother Roy; Disney at home with his family, in Bel Air; and finally Disney in “conversation” with a malfunctioning robot of Abraham Lincoln, who sputters out the words of old speeches while Disney remarks on the similarities between himself and Honest Abe (“Both sons of simple folks”) in spite of their contrasting views on race (“You were a supporter of the Negro Race./ That’s a major difference between us.”).

Throughout the opera, Disney is haunted by the figure of an owl, a straggling memory from his boyhood. A childlike wail opens the piece and resounds throughout Disney’s adulthood: “I drift between/ Not knowing/ What is real/ And not real,” he gasps. Like many other lines in the opera, this one tantalizes and then trails off into stock expressions of Disney’s megalomania and ambition. Its visual correlative, though, is arresting. A young child dons a mask with the plumage of a bird. Warbling soprano lines underscore the piercing source of menace; these are childhood demons that will spill into Disney’s animated world. Fantastical, animal-like forms in this opera—played by a group of dancers known as the Improbable Skills Ensemble—conjure the Disney creations, sometimes to gawky effect. (Rabbits wear sagging, pillow-case-like masks that make them seem more like robbers than sylvan creatures.) Still, to the credit of set designer Dan Potra and director Phelim McDermott, these animals also hint at the darker realities tormenting Disney. Near the end, one rabbit writhes out of Disney’s infirm grasp when he reaches to pet it plaintively. More powerful and suggestive still is these figures’ garb. They are dressed like Wilhelm Dantine in the brown plaid pants, white shirt sleeves, vests and visors of the studio draftsmen. On their heads and backs are animal appendages—cloth masks, fluttering hands forming cottontails. Even as these figures populate the Disney dreamscape, each walks on its own two feet, partially incarnated by the draftsmen themselves.

A fixture at center stage is Disney’s bed, and hovering above it are two rotating metal booms from which hang several white, rectangular scrims whirling around in a fevered circle. Onto them, and against the back wall, McDermott has projected a slew of flickering images. Some are from Disney’s past, but most of them are rough-hewn sketches of Disney characters, flitting about as though in an animated reel, with repetitive forms filling in and taking shape before our eyes. It’s an inspired vision, capturing the hurly-burly machinery of Disney’s mind and studio.

The music is similarly fixed on the teeming, multiform figures at play (and perhaps at war) inside the man himself. The strings articulate a repeating interval that spreads, with the percussive crackle of castanets and triangles, throughout the rest of the orchestra. Overlaid onto the strings’ two-note figures and occasionally rising and falling arpeggios are hurtling, clipped brass lines. The juxtaposition of textures heightens the driving, train-like feel. A deluge of strings plunges into minor-keyed undulations and then rises out with a sort of twinkle and glimmer confected by the fluid runs of a harp. These broad, shimmering tones summon Disney’s glinty world.

At the end of the second act, and near the opera’s finale, Disney chats with a young boy in the hospital. The CEO is dying of lung cancer, but is buoyed by the boy’s wonder (“Mister Disney, you’re my hero!”). The boy asks how it was possible for Disney to have created so much in so short a time; surely no one person could have done all that, he asks innocently. And with this unintentionally fraught suggestion, the music splinters into repetitive, angsty contrapuntal lines that snap back into unison, in an assured crescendo, when Disney responds: “I’m a storyteller./ And I’ll do anything to tell my story.” The man’s magic was one part bluster for every part inspiration.

* * *

The second act is better conceived than the first: less cluttered with disconnected set pieces and more emotionally powerful. Thematically, the story is tighter; with the exception of an aimless Andy Warhol cameo (he appears at the Disney offices and praises its founder as an artist and patriot), the pathos of the story is entirely concentrated in the opera’s second half. Dantine and Disney face off; later, Disney dies. Questions of authorship and self-regard finally rise to the surface, while the facile editorializing of the libretto softens and lets the music do the talking. During the Dantine-Disney confrontation, Glass conveys the seductive, even sinister charisma of this most imperfect American. Disney sets Dantine up for a harsh put-down with an alluring aside (“If I could only have my way,” he begins, promisingly, drawing the bruised but hopeful Dantine close); the tempestuousness of the orchestra subsides to make way for a mellifluous harp solo that is as beautiful as it is short-lived. Disney even seems to believe himself, for a moment, that reconciliation with Dantine is possible. But soon enough he has thundered back with a volley of insults.

Before the opera’s opening, Philip Glass told journalists that, like other great men, Disney was someone with his “feet in the mud, head in the clouds.” His head held eternally high, Disney was, inevitably, a man bespattered by the muck and grime of his times and of himself. The Perfect American shows signs of acknowledging this. But all too often, Disney’s two faces are unintegrated caricatures: a self-obsessed CEO, on the one hand, and a visionary in the eyes of his acolytes and propagandists, on the other. How did Disney grapple with himself—the brand and the huckster, the wide-open eyes and unsteady hand? This is where the portrait would be most provocative and valuable. In the first act, Disney likens himself to Lincoln (“We’re folk heroes,/ Mr. President.”). And in the second act, Warhol says as much to Roy Disney: “Tell Walt that…. We are one and the same.” In both acts, like bookends, are declarations of selfhood by analogy. But it was the man in the middle, with nowhere to look but inward, who stumbled over his own name.

Earlier this year, Jonathon Blitzer reviewed four novels based on the Falklands—or Malvinas—War between Argentina and England.

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