A British-designed and directed opera about Walt Disney which premieres in Spain this month before coming to London has been forced to tell the great cartoonist’s story without any of the images of the characters that made him a household name. Minnie, Donald, Pluto and Goofy, not to mention Mickey Mouse himself, will not be appearing on stage with the singers.
The Perfect American, the latest work by the acclaimed composer Philip Glass, concentrates on the last years of Disney’s life, when he lay dying of lung cancer while planning to have his body frozen. It portrays Disney as a megalomaniac with McCarthyite, racist and misogynist tendencies, so it is clear why the global entertainment corporation has denied rights. Yet, ironically, the most damaging charge the new opera levels at a man whose vision continues to dominate children’s culture is probably the claim that he did little actual work on the drawings that made him famous.
“This opera is a surreal dream,” said John Berry, artistic director of English National Opera. “It is not a biography and the truth is that we would probably not have used the real Disney characters in the production even if we had been allowed to.”
Berry said that Improbable, the acclaimed British ensemble who have created the piece for the Coliseum and for the Teatro-Real in Madrid, have worked on the opera in their unique way and have felt no visual limitations.
“They will be using animal imagery, puppets and shadow plays performed behind a screen to create a sort of abstract world. That is why we felt this is the right story to tell in an opera. It is not a realistic vision,” he said.
Improbable also worked with Glass on his 1979 opera Satyagraha, based on the life of Mahatma Gandhi, for a highly praised and innovative 2007 production performed by English National Opera.
The new opera is based on a fictionalised account of working at Disney’s cartoon factory written by Peter Stephan Jungk in 2005. His book tells the story from the perspective of a disgruntled employee who is sacked by Disney for trying to start a union and who then resolves to confront the man who has ruined his life and taken credit for the talents of many others.