- Greggory Moore
Philip Glass just won’t go away. That’s a good thing. In this 21st century of ours opera needs a guy who can marry classical orchestral paradigms with the computer age, all strange loops and binary repetitions and cold confusing realities, some new to modernity, some as old as wishing upon a star.
And God bless him, Glass could not have picked a better subject for such operatic treatment than Walter Elias Disney, a perfect American: ambitious, controlling, cunning, imaginative, needy, obsessive, pragmatic, self-righteous, bigger than life and wanting to live forever.
That’s where Glass and librettist Rudy Wurlitzer drop us in: terminally-ill Walt (Justin Ryan) is living out his last months in a shiny hospital ward, where he drifts between the present and the past, revisiting ghosts and demons, justifying himself to the living and the dead and leaving instructions about what to do with his body if he dies. Walt always adds “if” when he utters of the D word. His desire to triumph over the D word is a definer of his life.
Wurlitzer’s plainspoken libretto could not serve the story better. The Perfect American is chock full of recitative (a technique that’s always jarring to my ears, but less so within Glass’s minimalism), and this ain’t no poetry (show me a libretto that is), but Wurlitzer makes the most of librettism’s (anyone got a better word for that?) clumsiness to give us the necessary broad strokes of backstory and theme. But there’s also art in his artisanship, making clever turns like Act 1’s remembrance/beatification of Disney’s boyhood Marceline and its “Main Street, USA” (as Disney would reify it in his magic kingdom). But nothing beats, “Americans never say die, and tomorrow is only a miracle away,” which in 11 words synopsizes the philosophy and desire of the dying man in front of us. Wurlitzer neatly tailors the expression of his ideas (inspired by or drawn from Peter Stephan Jungk’s Der König von Amerika) to fit Glass’s minimalist ethos from start to finish.
For his part, Glass has never been better, and maybe never this good. You always know what you get with Glass: dark tones and space and note cycles spinning like plates on sticks. But here the plates wobble at all the right moments, wobble together to open up new spaces where snares and tympani, triangles and tambourines sing out and create aether of their own (there are three percussionists in Long Beach this week who are damn happy campers). Sure, there’s repetition aplenty (Glass is every Cure fan’s dream orchestral composer), but it’s maximally effective here, rarely drifting into redundancy. Plus, we get a few left turns into grand bursts of choir. (Do I even hear the occasional major chords? Phil, you devil!)
Special mention should be made of those choir parts. You can almost dispense with vocals in a Philip Glass opera. They’re usually the least interesting feature compositionally, and sometimes they seem needlessly (were it not for the text) lain atop the music. But the choral parts never feel like that. Instead, they are thunderbursts, and beams of sunlight streaming through the parting clouds, and the wind that carries distant memories to the present before they drift away forever.
Long Beach Opera won half the battle by landing The Perfect American (the American premiere, no less!). Then they won the other half by how they staged it. I found myself a little distracted early on wondering about production costs. That it’s beautiful is beyond question, all grays and silvers and chrome, lit with striking nuance (kudos, David Jacques). There are quality video projections and puppetry and shadowplay (both front- and back-projected). There’s a big metal façade gridded with dimmable white neon. There’s a gorgeously curving sculpture of a bank of five overhead OR lights looking down on the proceedings like benign versions of the War of the Worlds Martians.
I got to wondering about cost not because I care, but because a striking feature of Long Beach Opera’s staging is its perfect economy. Every aspect of performance and design, every moment and square foot is featured in the best possible light, literally and figuratively; every element is framed for maximum effect. Just like Glass does compositionally, sometimes you get more with less. However much there is to this production, what’s more salient is how much Long Beach Opera gets out of it.
That’s largely a tribute to Kevin Newbury, who has directed the shit out of this show. With assistance from choreographer Chloe Treat, Newbury expertly and unfailingly links movement to music and text, managing novel ways to engage us without ever breaking the crepuscular spell Glass casts onto Disney’s final days and the miasma of his mind. One of the Newbury’s masterstrokes is to turn several songs into distinct set pieces. Disney’s 65th birthday is an early example, where a stark change in lighting mimics Glass’s modal shift. But the debate between Walt and the animatronically skeletal Abraham Lincoln (brought to life with puppetry so fine in stretches that the lip sync matches not just syllables but mouth shape. Truly eerie) will almost push all the other great set pieces out of your mind.
Newbury has the luxury of getting to work with a perfect mise en scène. The Lincoln puppet, the scenery (best use of x-rays ever), the costumes, the video…And we’ve already talked about those lights. The elements fall into place so organically that you don’t know whether form is following function or the other way around. Zane Pihlström’s hauntingly beautiful steampunk owl costume seems to dictate how the wearer moves. Everything is like that: as if it could have been neither built nor employed in any other way. Remember that choir? Of course they’d be dressed as something between Mousketeers and schoolchildren from The Wall and stand in unison and be lit up from time to time through a cutaway in that big façade. You couldn’t not do that, right?
Unlike most operas, The Perfect American is not about soloists—the singing is just one of the summed parts—but the principals are strong basically across the board. In the lead role, Justin Ryan doesn’t have a moment to rest, but he brings the requisite energy and presence from start to finish, playing Walt in a way David Lynch would appreciate (there’s a Lynchian aesthetic to the whole show). Among the supporting roles, Zeffin Quinn Hollis is particularly strong as his brother Roy. (He and Scott Ramsay, as a chief Disney animator fired after trying to organize a union, have a great back-and-forth during an argument about the Disney contract.)
The music, meanwhile, is always center stage, and Andreas Mitisek has a hell of an orchestra with which to do Glass’s score the justice it deserves. Whether somnolent, meditative, or driving, you almost take the musical performance for granted because of how well it envelops you, a bit like how you stop feeling the water when the Jacuzzi temp is just right. You’re just immersed in the microclimate, and you let the current carry you along.
In the hands of Long Beach Opera, The Perfect American is that perfect marriage of text and execution, where the seams binding the two parts are imperceptible from the outside. That The Perfect American is American-premiering in Southern California, where we have such an up-close-and-personal relationship with Walt Disney and world, is almost too good to be true. Literally, because this is a two-performance run, and there is only one left. I’ll never be able to generally recommend an opera more highly. Go.
THE PERFECT AMERICAN LONG BEACH OPERA • TERRACE THEATER (300 E OCEAN BLVD) • LONG BEACH 90802 • 562.432.5934 LONGBEACHOPERA.ORG • SATURDAY 8PM • $49–$150; STUDENT RUSH TIX $15 • MARCH 18 ONLY
(Photo credit: Keith Ian Polakoff)