COT closes the Mitisek era with Glass’s dismal Disney downer

Mon May 01, 2017 at 4:36 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Justin Ryan as Walt Disney and Rana Ebrahimi as Josh in Philip Glass's "The Perfect American" at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Liz Lauren
Justin Ryan as Walt Disney and Rana Ebrahimi as Josh in Philip Glass’s “The Perfect American” at Chicago Opera Theater. Photo: Liz Lauren

When an opera closes Act I with a giant mechanical puppet of Abraham Lincoln menacing a dying Walt Disney we’re not in Anaheim anymore.

Andreas Mitisek opened his tenure as artistic director of Chicago Opera Theater in 2013 with Philip Glass’s The Fall of the House of Usher. On Sunday afternoon he bid farewell to his COT post with the second and final performance of another Glass opera, The Perfect American, at the Harris Theater.

With an introductory talk –no excruciating letter from a composer, thank god, since Glass himself was in the house–Mitisek introduced Douglas Clayton, his successor. Both men handled the transition with humor and a gracious informality that bodes well for the future of Chicago’s leading alternative opera company.

Mitisek deserves credit for broadening the opera scene in Chicago during his tenure. His focus on homegrown contemporary works was especially welcome as the largest company in town continues to treat American opera like the Ebola virus.

The Austrian director-conductor had some notable successes in his Chicago tenure–Frank Martin’s The Love Potion, Tobias Picker’s Therese Raquin, Poulenc’s La Voix Humaine. There were also clever and inventive Mitisek productions like Piazzolla’s Maria de Buenos Aires and, especially, Ricky Ian Gordon’s Orpheus and Euridice, audaciously staged in and around a Park District swimming pool.

Yet ultimately, Mitisek’s artistic leadership was mixed. Too often misdirected stagings tipped over into overcaffeinated silliness (The Fairy Queen, Gianni Schicchi) or something much worse (the infamous Verdi Joan of Arc). In his zeal to be offbeat and “edgy,” Mitisek was too often undiscerning about musical quality, presenting eclectic theater works with little musical merit (Duke Ellington’s Queenie Pie, Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt, Stewart Copeland’s The Invention of Morel).

In many ways The Perfect American reflects that uneven legacy. While it was a laudable idea to fete Glass in his 80th birthday season, unfortunately Mitisek did so by presenting one of the composer’s lousiest works. There may be a worse opera than The Perfect American in Glass’s oeuvre but I doubt it.

Adapted from the novel of the same name by Peter Stephan Jungk, The Perfect American is set in a hospital as Walt Disney is dying of lung cancer and reflects on his life and career–his beloved hometown of Marceline, Missouri, his close collaboration with his brother Roy, his battles with unions and establishment of his Disney theme parks.

Disney’s packed life as cartoonist, pioneering film-maker and entertainment visionary could have made an intriguing work but Glass’s opera has a different agenda. The Perfect American is a cynical, two-hour-plus hit job on Walt Disney, presenting him as a vulgar, buffoonish, racist, not-too-bright tyrant. As reflected in the title, the opera posits the politically conservative businessman as reflective of a dumdum nation (“the soul of America”), which is as equally stupid and malevolent as the founder of Disneyland.

God knows, there is plenty of fodder in media commercialism and the idiocies of pop culture. But Rudy Wurlitzer’s ponderous libretto never makes a case. Glass has rarely been successful in his choice of opera collaborators, for which the composer must bear some blame. Wurlitzer’s verbose and leaden prose is devoid of incident or drama–unless you count the Lincoln puppet attacking Walt—and just one clumsy, long-winded exposition after the other, in which the sneering libretto never rises above its own simplistic, anti-Disney pieties.

One of Philip Glass’s most attractive qualities is the Buddhist equanimity and humanism of his best music—which makes the mean-spirited, nihilistic Perfect American hard to fathom. No doubt Disney had his faults like everyone else. But surely the true Walt was a lot more rounded–and a hell of a lot more interesting–than the cardboard capitalist villain presented here. And at a time of terrorist attacks, potential nuclear war in Asia, and American universities acquiescing to assaults on free speech, it’s hard to work up much sympathy for an opera that posits Walt Disney as the root of all evil.

The opera’s final scene, in which Disney befriends Josh, a young boy with cancer in his ward, seems like a calculated afterthought designed to show that Disney wasn’t quite the satanic monster represented in the preceding two hours.

Nor is Glass’s music very compelling. There are no solo breakout moments and–like many of his stage works–the music proceeds in a pleasant, skillfully varied yet ultimately unmemorable chugga-chugga.

Glass made much of his early reputation with operas like Satyagraha, Ahknaten, and Einstein on the Beach, which became celebrated cultural events that transcended musical genres. Yet with each new Glass opera seeming less successful than the last, one begins to wonder if opera is really his genre. Perhaps his early stage works were praised (or overpraised) more for their stylistic singularity and striking productions than any inherent substance.

Increasingly–and especially after exploring the recent box set of his first ten symphonies–it’s hard not to think that Glass’s best music is in non-vocal, purely instrumental genres—the piano Etudes, the string quartets, his concertos and his nonvocal symphonies.

COT gave The Perfect American a game production, which only served to emphasize the musical slenderness and corrosive unpleasantness of the piece. Baritone Justin Ryan was superb as Disney, singing with a robust, firmly focused baritone throughout. Zeffin Quinn Hollis was on the same level as Roy (doubling as Lincoln).

Taking a quartet of roles, Kyle Knapp provided a welcome light moment as a foppish Andy Warhol; Rana Ebrahimi was touching as a boyish, bell-toned Josh. Scott Ramsay as Walt’s labor antagonist Helmut Dantine and Suzan Hanson as Lillian Disney rounded out the main cast.

Director Kevin Newbury added some piquant staging touches that improved on the original Madrid production and attempted to balance the opera’s relentlessly negative portrayal of Disney. Mitisek conducted a solid, well-played performance in the pit although one would have liked more incisive cut to Glass’s restless rhythms.

Chicago Opera Theater opens its 2017-18 season with Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Consul November 4-12.

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