In terms of the actual corporate moniker, 'Walt Disney' generally brings to mind happy families and a strong, pop culture sensibility, but Chicago Opera Theater’s production of 'The Perfect Stranger' invites a deeper perspective of the man, himself.

How does the team illustrate Disney’s struggle with mortality? Mainly, through the perspective of a hunted-down owl, a debate with Abraham Lincoln over politics and the fury of a fired employee, but there are also scenes in which Disney faces his demons alone — fortunately his powerful voice perfectly reflects his wariness of the future.

The operatic score was composed by Philip Glass, who has enjoyed a close, professional relationship with COT over the years. Glass deftly balanced sharply accented brass with effectively stark percussion and lushly layered strings. The rich melodies, while never in competition with the singers, firmly underscored the Disney character’s fore-mentioned angst.

This prolific American composer has written more than twenty-five operas and has had many opportunities to celebrate the lives of powerful men, such as Einstein, Gandhi, Akhnaten and Galilei over the years, but there’s a serenity and sophistication to this opera that wasn’t always present in preceding works. Yet the score did not go too far afield, either, it contained strong elements of his signature sound: cerebral loops of crystal clear, mesmerizing harmonies.

There was also a genuine attempt to express a lot with just a few words. The opening phrases, for example, centered around “knowing” and “not knowing,” which allowed the listener space to form subjective opinions. That said, though, there were later scenes in which a full-blown aria would have moved the story along more effectively than the repetitive choral responses.

Opening scenes were set in Marceline, Mo., where Walt and his older brother and eventual business partner, Roy, portrayed by baritone Zeffin Quinn Hollis, enjoyed a simple, outdoorsy childhood - “Country boys hiding behind a mouse and a duck,” the Chorus reminded us frequently.

Director Kevin Newbury created the inviting stage pictures and local members of The Apollo Chorus flawlessly echoed key plot points. To add interest, the talented Chorus faced the audience from behind an onstage scrim. Conductor Andreas Mitisek handled the orchestra of forty plus with subtlety and passion.

Costume designer Zane Pihlstrom’s period costumes looked especially elegant on the female characters. Justin Ryan (Disney) often wore a simple, silk robe, and relied on pronounced body language and his booming baritone to establish his strong characterization. Sean Cawelti’s larger-than-life puppets punched up the plot with delightful physicality and striking surrealism.

The libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer was based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s book, 'The King of America', which depicted Disney as a hater of ‘60s subculture, a racist and a rip-off artist, who denied creative credit to his employees. One of the most explosive scenes takes place when the disgruntled, former employee, Wilhelm Dentine, played by tenor Scott Ramsey faces off his ex-boss. Whilst critical elements are definitely illustrated in the second act, they are balanced off with the main character’s reflections about mortality and forgiveness. The protagonist’s most humane moment came about during an interaction with a young patient/fan. This act also included a brief scene in which “Andy Warhol,” portrayed by Kyle Erdos Knapp, insisted on paying tribute to his idol, which added a welcome breath of comic relief.

Disney would later replicate the architecture, railroad and mood of Marceline in the future theme park’s 'Main Street U.S.A.' 'Marceline' also served as a leitmotif in several flashbacks, that contrasted scenes where the 65-year-old dealt with a diagnosis of terminal cancer from his hospital room — his loyal wife is the one who first discovers that he has only three remaining months to live. Disney longs to relive the small town comfort and splendour with his wife and daughters. That said, the flashback scenes are genuinely moving.

Back in the hospital setting, however, he confronts his own fears of mortality. That agonizing eeriness is conveyed via a run in with a conniving spirit in an owl costume. The surrealism escalates; the score grows more dissonant and Disney grows weary, arguing with the life-sized Abraham Lincoln about politics.

The second act allows Disney to vent, reflect and forgive. When a former animator approaches his ex-boss with a litany of complaints, we discover Disney’s conservative side. He hates the anti-war protestors, the union members and the irreverent hippies. He comes across as a man who goes into a rage easily, but not without remorse. Yet, when dealing with his family, and the adoring young, male fan, he comes across as almost saintly.

But is this version of Walt Disney’s life really that controversial or is 'The Perfect American' simply the story of a successful CEO looking back at life with the same regrets, fascinations and epiphanies that the rest of us humans possess?

This Saturday night premiere in Chicago, where Walt Disney was born, was followed up by a matinee the following Sunday, and preceded by a run in Long Beach, California, where the Chicago Opera Theater has a sister company. Because of conflicts with Disney heirs over the libretto’s alleged controversy, 'The Perfect American' did not get staged in Los Angeles, California.















Related Links:

http://philipglass.com
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philip_Glass
https://twitter.com/GlassNotesBlog
https://www.facebook.com/philipglassmusic/


Commenting On: The Perfect American, Opera Theater, Chicago, 30/4/2017 - Philip Glass








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