It wasn’t surprising that English National Opera’s UK première of The Perfect American was one of the most eagerly anticipated productions of the summer. Based on a fictitious narrative by Peter Stephan Jungk, the opera offers a timely glance behind the plush curtains of Walt Disney’s animated feature films. The genial grandfather of children’s entertainment is portrayed as a paranoid megalomaniac, his on-screen stories of hope, love and heroism driven by a merciless off-screen dictatorship. At the hands of director Phelim McDermott and the theatre company Improbable, Jungk’s disturbing story received a vivid theatrical realization. However, it was the musical mastermind behind the opera whose presence was the greatest attraction for audiences last night.

ENO, The Perfect American: Christopher Purves, Rosie Lomas © Richard Hubert Smith
ENO, The Perfect American: Christopher Purves, Rosie Lomas
© Richard Hubert Smith

In many ways Philip Glass was the perfect composer to treat this subject matter. Beginning his career as one of the architects of American minimalism, Glass’ work has been in the public eye ever since the 1976 première of his epic five-hour opera Einstein on the Beach. His significance in the world of contemporary music has gradually become apparent through a prolific output that embraces just about every genre from stage works to film scores, symphonies and string quartets. Like the Hollywood magnate Disney, Glass has also been responsible for managing a creative empire, and one that was designed to occupy a position at the forefront of Western culture.

The Perfect American focuses on the last years of Disney’s life where we see him hospitalized and dying from lung cancer. Flashbacks revealing his ruthless conduct towards company draughtsmen are pitted against his childlike pleas to be cryogenically frozen when faced with death. The ex-Disney artist William Dantine drifts in and out of the drama, recalling the incident where he was fired for attempting to form a union. Rose-tinted memories from Disney’s home town of Marceline, Missouri permeate the narrative, while the animator’s objectionable views regarding money, politics and race are given a rather tongue-in-cheek airing.

Phelim McDermott’s staging for this production was a marvel to behold. A circular platform comprised the main set and there were several stylish devices that worked in tandem with this. Revolving sheets of gauze were brilliantly exploited with beams of projected light “sketching” each scene upon the hanging material or mimicking the electrical interference that marked old cinema screens. McDermott’s solution to the copyright protecting reproductions of Disney’s characters was similarly ingenious: a silent team of animators dressed in checked clothing and white gloves imitated the movements and mannerisms of the Disney menagerie throughout the opera. They hopped, bounced and twiddled their fingers with the elegance of mime artists, while alluding to the Disney world in menacing animal-fashioned balaclavas.

The ENO performers were in good form for this opening night. Christopher Purves took to the voice of Walt Disney with characteristic panache, while Jon Easterlin brought comic relief from the sinister tale with his affected portrayal of Andy Warhol. Zachary James’ appearance as the malfunctioning motorized puppet of Abraham Lincoln was especially striking: we watched his tall frame jitter and stagger about the stage while Disney attempted to engage the puppet in heart-to-heart conversation.

With regard to the music, there were stimulating correlations between the painstaking line-by-line technique of Disney’s animation and the intricate repetitive structures of Glass’ score. However, it is questionable whether this correlation was sufficient to sustain interest for two hours – after the novelty of the relationship had worn off the musical processes seemed to grow predictable. From another angle, Glass’ brassy American nationalistic music was well suited to the opera’s subject matter. Yet one wonders whether this was simply a fortuitous coincidence rather than a knowing artistic decision.

In the programme notes to the opera, Phelim McDermott made a revealing comment about his collaboration with Glass. Disclosing the fact that the music was only added to the production at the last minute, he remarked “I was wondering ‘What’s it going to sound like?’ Well, it was Philip Glass so we could all guess what the music would sound like”. Our comfortable familiarity with Glass’ musical language has perhaps served to neutralise the very qualities that were once heard as dynamic. In any case, the “slotting in” of his score at a late stage gave the opera less the feel of an intensely collaborative project and more that of a highbrow Broadway show.

This all seems central to Glass’ aesthetic. He prefers to cast composing as an mundane job, and churns out material with the regularity of clockwork. “I don’t have time”, was his famous response when asked if he ever experienced writer’s block. Such a low-key attitude to crafting musical ideas is of course refreshing in our culture of the artist-as-genius. Unfortunately, though, The Perfect American did not offer sufficient demonstration of why we should be interested in this music.

***11