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The Perfect American - Review

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by Bryony Harrison (subscribe)
Freelance writer and poet from London; if you would like to read my poetry, please check out my book, 'Poems on the Page', available from goo.gl/Ta4oAX.
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Re-imagining Disney's Last Moments
the perfect american, philip glass, opera, walt disney, london coliseum, english national opera


I am a big Disney fan, so when I was on the tube the other day and saw a Picasso-esque poster with an illustration of Walt Disney, it stopped me in my tracks. It was advertising something called The Perfect American by Philip Glass. Based on the picture, I assumed this was some kind of art exhibition, so went online to find out which gallery it was at. That's when, to my surprise, I discovered that it was not an art exhibition after all, but an opera.

Walt Disney was a musical genius; his vision, sense of timing, and animated choreography were second to none. Without a doubt, his greatest musical masterpiece was Fantasia (1940); it was a daring, symphonic extravaganza. If anyone deserved an opera, it was Walt Disney. I can't actually quite believe it has taken this long for one to be made.

I had no hesitation about buying tickets to The Perfect American, but it was far from what I expected. Far from being perfect, Philip Glass removes our rose tinted glasses, and portrays Disney in a less than sympathetic light. Although Mickey, Donald, and Goofy are mentioned, you'll find no jolly mice or speech impeded ducks; this is a biographical opera based on Walt Disney's final days as he reflects back on his life. To children like Josh, Disney is 'like God'; he is 'the man who makes animals talk'. In reality, Disney was very difficult to work with and treated his staff badly. Despite this, I still think Glass presented him a bit unfairly. He is depicted as a radical fascist and extremely egotistical, comparing himself to Moses, Zeus, and Jesus. On the over hand, The Perfect American is based on a novel by Peter Stephan Jungk, and probably takes a lot of material from what has already been written.

As the curtains roll up, you could mistake the opening as a scene from Frankenstein; an atmospheric fog descend upon the stage, Walt is lying on a hospital bed rising from the ground, and there is a ticking clock. His time is running out. The Nine Old Men creep onto the stage with a captivating miming performance as they pretend to draw on moving projector screens.

Things go down hill when the singing starts. I thought the fact that the opera is in English would be a good thing, but it turned out to be the exact opposite. When I have heard opera in the past, it has always been in a foreign language; I have not cared about what the actors were saying, but merely enjoyed the pleasant melodic sounds being created. In English, however, the rhythm goes completely out the window. The actors are basically singing prose, and it has no flow or rhythm; it also sounds completely ridiculous when they start singing about things like apple pie, Andy Warhol, and being cryogenically frozen. The orchestra itself, doesn't do much to help matters. I was expecting music reminiscent of Fantasia, but instead it was imperial, austere, and sometimes even caustic to the ears. As contradictory as it is, the opera felt like a serious pantomime.

For me, The Perfect American was too esoteric. My parents and I agreed that there were scenes that we did not understand at all, like why did a random girl called Lucy think it was Halloween, why was Abraham Lincoln a puppet, and why is Disney having visions of Harvey-esque rabbits? When it reached the interval, we seriously considered leaving. In the end, we decided to stick it out, and I'm glad that we did because the second half was a big improvement. Disney is given redemption in a heartwarming scene with a boy named Josh at the hospital. He (and the character of Lucy) are played by Rosie Lomas, who I think despite her minor role, gave the starring performance of the night.

The Perfect American is very clever, but perhaps too clever for its own good. Laced with metaphor, imagery, and hyperrealism, it is difficult to engage with the characters. I personally think it would have worked better as a play. But then, what do I know? When the opera ended, the rest of the audience applauded with gusto for several minutes. Everyone seemed to enjoy it but me and my parents. Maybe we're just not high brow enough.

london coliseum, the perfect american, philip glass, walt disney
'The Perfect American' at The London Coliseum


The Perfect American is playing at The London Coliseum on the 8th, 13th, 17th, 20th, 25th, 27th & 28th June at 7.30pm. Tickets are between 19-60, and it lasts for just over two hours, plus an interval.
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Why? Learn more about Walt Disney
When: Until 128th June
Phone: 44 (0) 20 7845 9300
Website: www.eno.org
Where: London Coliseum
Cost: 19-60
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