As the curtain rises on the perfect American, a man clings, twisted and cowering, to the bars of his hospital bed. Music pulses, and an owl descends--a mere cartoon, but terrifying nonetheless--while a team of artists, almost menacing in their obsequiousness, sketch sets of circles that arrange themselves into a familiar mouselike form. The drawings function as a reveal of sorts: the man in the bed is Walt Disney, and he is dying. "Go away!" he cries. "I drift between knowing what is real and not real."
This is not the Uncle Walt of your childhood. The kindly, avuncular man who introduced The Wonderful World of Disney each Sunday night is still wearing that ever-so-slightly lopsided mustache and a carefully cut suit, but he is now in the grip of existential panic. Crippled with anxiety about his legacy and fighting desperately against his impending death, this is a Disney who, after a lifetime spent creating illusions, finds himself no longer able to stave off reality. That tension, and the tragedy that lies at the heart of America's self-made mythology, helps explain why Philip Glass, America's most famous living composer, has written an opera about him.
Based on Peter Stephan Jungk's 2004 historical novel of the same name, The Perfect American premiered at Madrid's Teatro Real on Jan. 22 and will move to London in June and possibly Los Angeles after that. Teatro Real's artistic director, Gerard Mortier, says he knew as soon as he read Jungk's book about the last days of Disney that he wanted Glass to write an opera about it. "Animation is based on the repetition of images," Mortier says. "Glass's music is all about the repetition of notes. And his work, like Disney's, represents a distinctly American way of seeing the world."
Still, it is not the most obvious pairing. Compared with the mainstream appeal of Disney's cartoons and movies, Glass's minimalist music is decidedly avant-garde. His best-known work--he has written more than 20 operas and 10 symphonies--is a five-hour plot-free opera about Einstein. Another piece, about Gandhi's early years, is performed in Sanskrit.
Glass's latest reimagining of an iconic man's life uses vignettes to depict a Disney who, however great his influence on American culture, was also a union breaker who discriminated against African Americans and women. Yet Glass, who has long supported leftist causes, including Occupy Wall Street, speaks gently of Disney's unenlightened ideas. "It was a different time. People were more conservative then," he says. "You have to consider the context."
Political differences aside, there's no doubt that Glass identifies with his lead character. Both men's work, after all, sits at the juncture of art and entertainment. Disney included Stravinsky in his soundtrack to Fantasia; Glass has collaborated with David Bowie and Linda Ronstadt, written scores for mainstream films like The Truman Show and still does commercial work, including the tune for a Best Buy ad that aired during last year's Super Bowl. "The unique thing about American culture is that high and popular culture are closely related," says Glass. "Disney understood that."
In the scene that ends The Perfect American's first act, Disney talks to an animatronic Abraham Lincoln, presumably liberated from every kid's least favorite Disneyland ride. A childhood hero of Disney's, Abe was immortalized in the theme park in 1965, the year before Disney died of cancer at age 65. "In spite of every obstacle, we made something of ourselves. We changed the world," he sings to the 16th President, and it is easy to imagine Glass, whose father was an auto mechanic turned radio-repair-shop owner, saying the same.