PostHeaderIcon An Imperfect American Icon

You would think that an opera by noted composer, Philip Glass, about an iconic American innovator, Walt Disney, and staged by an accomplished director of contemporary opera, Kevin Newbury, would stand a strong chance at being a success. I certainly did. But I was wrong.

Perfect American 1

Disney (center) with family and friends.

“The Perfect American” received its Chicago premiere last Saturday evening (April 22) at the Harris Theater in Millennium Park. It was Chicago Opera Theater’s final production under the leadership of Artistic Director, Andreas Mitisek, who also conducted the Glass score. Mitisek has given Chicago a mixed bag of contemporary operas during his five-year tenure. He is being succeeded as artistic director by Douglas Clayton, COT’s executive director.

This season, COT enjoyed critical acclaim with a compelling staging of the Tristan and Isolde tale, “The Love Potion” and, most recently, the sci-fi story, “The Invention of Morel”. That string of success makes this disappointment more striking.

I like my opera to be coherent. Yet, “The Perfect American’s” libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer, based on the book by Peter Stephan Junge, veers sharply between fact and fantasy. The action is set in the hospital during the last three months of Disney’s life as    he relives events and petty torments in his life. Rather than being grounded in reality, the dialogue too often seems more like Disney’s fevered dream. His outbursts are uttered with no context or connection, akin to the ramblings of a sick patient under psychotropic medication.

Disney being treated

The play does have moments of clarity and could have used many more. Rather than a perfect American, Disney is portrayed as an egomaniac who took all the credit for his studio’s painstaking work and wild success. When the animators and graphic artists try to form a union, Disney crushes the attempt and fires scores of the artistic staff. Another scene shows his racist attitude toward blacks.

The play paints him as a right-wing super-patriot, the living embodiment of the American Dream for mid-century America. But the action soon pivots back to his angry outbursts. He is visited in the hospital by other historical icons, an animatronic Abraham Lincoln and pop artist, Andy Warhol, iconic figures in their own right. But their appearances are played more for laughs than insight.

Justin Ryan delivered a convincing singing and dramatic performance as Walt Disney. The large cast of supporting actors have no distinct identity and leave little impression.  I even found Glass’ signature ostinato repetitions not particularly gripping and sounding more like recycled Glass. Newbury kept the action moving at a brisk and assured pace, perhaps hoping the endless activity would mask the scant story line.

Some reviewers expressed a more forgiving opinion so perhaps you should catch the opera’s only remaining performance this Sunday, April 30, to judge for yourself. The composer is expected to attend. For tickets, call Chicago Opera Theater at 312/704-8414 or


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