“The Perfect American:” an imperfect opera

By M.L. RANTALA
Classical Music Critic

What: “The Perfect American”
Where: Harris Theater (205 E. Randolph St.)
When: Through Apr. 30
Tickets: cot.org

The Andreas Mitisek era at Chicago Opera Theater comes to a close this month with the end of COT’s 2016-17 season. Mitisek’s final production as artistic director is “The Perfect American” by Philip Glass. It opened Saturday night to noticeably less than a full house at the Harris Theater.

“The Perfect American” is about the final days of Walt Disney, as he is dying of cancer in a California hospital. The libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer is based on the book of the same name by Peter Stephan Junck.

Glass set out to create an opera that shows Disney warts and all. His flaws and prejudices are starkly presented, but his visionary status impressed the composer, who is quoted in the program as saying, “I see Disney as an icon of modernity, a man able to build bridges between highbrow culture and popular culture; just like Leonard Bernstein, who could jump from a Broadway musical to a Mahler cycle.”

Yet the episodic opera, which flits from past to present to surrealist encounters (an example of the last is Disney talking to the Lincoln puppet when it has malfunctioned, as a way of exploring his reactionary views on race) in a manner that is more dizzying than elucidating.

What is true and what is imaginary isn’t always clear, and this may well be intended since Disney was the greatest 20th century example of a creator of fantasy based on an idealized America.

Disney’s love of his hometown of Marceline, Missouri comes through loud and clear, repeated like a Glass ostinato. His rage at workers who went on strike against him is realized well, as is his child-like obsession with trains.

But many ideas are so fleetingly presented in this opera (2 hours, 20 minutes with one intermission) that you don’t know what to make of them. Did he love his nurse Hazel (who he calls Snow White)? His family — wife, two daughters, and brother Roy — are all represented, but his relationship with them is perfectly muddy.

The second act seems to pit Disney against death, but that too is more muddled than satisfying. The one thing we are sure of is that he wanted to be cryogenically preserved but was in fact cremated by order of his family.

The singers are fully committed. Baritone Justin Ryan is convincing as Walt Disney, from his pride in his work, his love of small town values, and his insistence on perfection in smallest details. Ryan has a clear and commanding voice and an ability to grab your attention and hold on to it.

Zeffirelli Quinn Hollis does fine work as Roy as well as the voice of Abe Lincoln. Scott Ramsay is compelling as Wilhelm Dantine, one of Disney’s protesting workers.

In the smaller roles, there are two standouts. Rama Ebrahimi is glorious as the boy Josh, in the cancer ward at the same time as Walt. Her clear soprano, bell-like with little vibrato, is radiant and touching. Kyle Knapp nearly steals the show with his brief appearance as Andy Warhol, trying to visit the dying Disney at the hospital. He is simply hilarious.

Mitisek conducts a 40-piece orchestra with style, although occasionally the lower voices sound a little cloudy. The Apollo Chorus, seen only through a small window at the back of the stage, do good work with the choral numbers.

Director Kevin Newberry keeps things moving on stage, literally. Beds and chairs on wheels are constantly pushed here and there and back and forth.

Next season Douglas Clayton takes over from Mitisek. Both men took to the stage to talk about COT before the opera began. Mitisek announced that he had a letter to read. (Regulars at COT know that he has done this many times, making jokes as if dead folks like Mozart had written the missives.) He joked, that if you liked these letters, you got to hear another one. If you didn’t like them, you at least knew this would be his last.