What’s Opera, Diz?
A quick perusal of any major online bookstore yields numerous biographies of Walter Elias Disney. I should know, having emptied many piggy banks obtaining them over the years. These books run the gamut of objective to subjective, factual to conjectural, original to derivative, worshipful to denigrating. The best of them offer well-researched, balanced accounts of Disney’s life and works. The worst are tabloid slime containing a wealth of factual errors.
Now Disney has an opera detailing his purported last days. This piece of art tends towards the lower spectrum mentioned above, but that is not really the point of this column. A far more absorbing question is why it exists at all.
The Perfect American is the brainchild of minimalist composer Philip Glass and librettist Randy Wurlitzer. A fictionalized account of Disney’s decline in 1966, the opera is less than kind to Uncle Walt. He is portrayed as an alcoholic racist with a particular dislike for Jews and blacks. He is philandering with studio nurse Hazel George. His studio is depicted as an animation sweatshop, where anonymous artists toil for Disney’s greater glory. One of them, a chap named Wilhelm Dantine, is fired by Walt and spends much of the opera stalking him and witnessing his misdeeds, rather like a vengeful Jiminy Cricket.
Glass has become somewhat like the Ken Russell of his field. He composes operatic biographies of famous men such as Gandhi and Einstein, to name a couple. Glass apparently chose Walt Disney after reading Peter Stephan Jungk’s truly dismal novel, which makes Marc Eliot’s Disney biography look like a benediction. The Perfect American premiered at Teatro Real in Madrid in January of this year, to mixed reviews and an outpouring of hatred from the learned animation community.
I was able to see this opera (which is in English) on streaming video. I must immediately confess that I am not an opera buff and have little familiarity with the art form. I am a bit more familiar with Philip Glass, if only by dint of seeing a performance years ago at my college campus. He rather reminded me of Rick Wakeman playing octaves on the same five keys for ten minutes at a stretch, but that’s not a fair assessment of his total output. It is probably much more accurate to note that Mr. Wakeman might understand Disney far better than Mr. Glass. I have no idea if this production is a presentable opera, but I assure you that it is not accurate biography.
August historians of Disney were not slow in responding. Michael Barrier, who can likely relate what Disney ate for breakfast on a given day, lambasted the “insanely stupid” libretto as well as the source material. Animation maven Charles Solomon castigated Glass for perpetuating false rumors about Walt (as well as the vicious portrayal of the man). Although reviewers did not know exactly what to make of The Perfect American, animation fans and experts on countless blogs and websites were clearly not pleased.
As if the opera were not enough, performance artist Paul McCarthy is ready to go on the road in June with “White Snow”, a scatological takeoff on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. McCarthy has a long history of working animation-related material into his outrageous and profane exhibitions, and his depiction of Walt follows suit. While performance art is loopy virtually by definition, audiences had best be prepared to see “Walt Disney” participate in a dizzying orgy that features him, Snow White, and seven penis-flapping dwarfs having at it. Another major flap occurred when New York Times feature writer Randy Kennedy likened Mr. McCarthy’s impersonation of Disney to that of Hitler. Clearly, 2013 seems to be open season on Walt Disney.
Some media analysts claim that a backlash against Disney the Megacorporation is in effect. Walt the man becomes a stand-in for the company he founded, a symbol of all that is hated about the far-reaching media conglomerate that devoured ABC, Marvel, and Lucasfilm, among others. Might this be true at some subconscious level? Somehow, I doubt it.
Walt Disney passed away forty-seven years ago, and when he did, a nation grieved. Epcot was unfinished. ABC was an independent broadcasting network, George Lucas was a college junior, and the Disney studio was beginning to spiral downwards in the quality of its vaunted animated films. Walt was still a beloved American icon, not the greedy ruler of a multinational juggernaut. Richard Schickel would not file his biographical salvo against Walt for another two years.