Glass, Philip


Perfect AmericanPhilip Glass - The Perfect American

Teatro Real, Madrid, 2013 | Dennis Russell Davies, Phelim McDermott, Christopher Purves, David Pittsinger, Donald Kaasch, Janis Kelly, Marie McLaughlin, Sarah Tynan, Nazan Fikret, Rosie Lomas, Zachary James, John Easterlin, Juan Noval-Moro, Beatriz de Gálvez, Noelia Buñuel | Medici.tv / ARTE Live Web, Internet Streaming, 5th February 2013

It’s not too hard to see the point being made about in Philip Glass’s new opera based on the last days of Walt Disney. The irony is hammered home repeatedly and with no great subtlety in either the libretto or the musical arrangements. His animation and the safe family-friendly ideals they espouse may be revered by generations of children and their parents, but those values are derived from a rather more flawed human individual. An old-fashioned, smalltown country-boy with Republican ideals, intolerant of progress and union activity, Walt Disney is depicted in The Perfect American as a megalomaniac who not only took the credit for the hard work and talent of others, but he treated them appallingly as well. So he wasn’t a nice guy. Why make an opera about him? Well, if Walt Disney and his works are held up as being the epitome of “The Perfect American”, even ironically, then there might be some merit in exploring prevailing bigoted attitudes and intolerance. If that’s its purpose however, the opera singularly fails to make its case.

Whether Walt Disney should be accorded the stature of being the subject for opera isn’t so much in question then as much as whether a study of the animation giant as the “Perfect American” really has as much to say about the society we live in today as the subjects of previous Glass biographical works - Einstein (Einstein on the Beach), Gandhi (Satyagraha) or the great reforming Egyptian pharaoh (Akhnaten). Whatever you think of Walt Disney or his children’s animation films, he’s not exactly the first person who comes to mind when you look around for a representative icon of American values. Yes, the Disney animation studio was certainly one of the earliest and biggest exports of American family values, the empire of the Mouse and the Duck expanding to conquer and achieve universal recognisability in even the most remote corners of the world. As for whether the personal attitudes of Disney persist and hold influence, there’s a case could certainly be made for that, but not laid specifically at the door of Walt Disney the man.

The idea that he may have been as important as Thomas Edison or Henry Ford may form a part of Walt Disney’s self-delusion, but there is no reason given why the audience should believe it or even any suggestion that anyone takes the comparison seriously. This is a fault that lies throughout the whole premise of the opera. Based on a novel by Peter Stephen Jungk, a fictionalised account of Walt Disney that recounts the last few months of his life, The Perfect American seems to be attempting to suggest that the flaws and delusions of one man have some kind of wider implication, but in reality it just presents the twisted views of one small-minded individual that seem to have no place or purpose on the operatic stage. The same could perhaps be said about Mark Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole, but the tragic story of the rise and demise of Anna Nicole Smith could arguably be said to reflect the pitfalls in following the American Dream with a broader historical scope (Marilyn Monroe) and more cutting social observation, at least on the compromised position of women within that Dream.

Like Anna Nicole, The Perfect American similarly relies heavily on a depiction of the corrupting influence of smalltown America. But whereas Anna Nicole Smith saw it as a “shithole” that she had to escape from, Walt Disney - in the kind of obvious expositional language that is prevalent throughout Rudy Wurlitzer’s libretto (”Everything that I’ve become has its roots in Marceline“), looks back fondly on his origins, seeing in his hometown all the good old-fashioned American values that he holds dear. Just to emphasise his position as a reactionary and an unpleasant man, his relationship with Wilhelm Dantine - an animator on ‘The Sleeping Beauty‘ - and their fall-out over union activities is the linking element between the three acts, but Dantine is still devastated when Walt dies. The libretto’s idea of any other kind of character development is limited to snappy mottos (”Never say die!“), common clichés (Mickey Mouse being “more famous than Santa” and “more recognisable that Jesus“) and banal observations (”That’s what he does, spares everyone the worst“) that don’t so much highlight the nature of Disney as illustrate the lack of imagination of the libretto and the treatment.

Even those areas where the work tries a less literal approach, the implications are no less obvious and at the same time no more revealing of the man other than the scale of his self-delusion. He expresses his desire to a nurse at the hospital to be cryogenically frozen so that he can be revived in the future, and hubristically compares his cartoons to Greek gods, believing that his work and his beliefs in good conservative American values will “live forever”. A little more colour is added when Walt is contrasted with Andy Warhol, who was born in the same year, or in a sequence where Walt has a conversation with a robot Abraham Lincoln, but even there, it seems like just thrown in as an opportunity to allow Disney to express some pretty distasteful views on the abolition of slavery leading to the degradation of traditional American values.

The latter sequences allow director Phelim Mc Dermott and designer Dan Potra a bit more freedom to experiment with the staging, but to be honest, it’s impressive throughout. It’s not on the same scale of brilliance of McDermott and his Improbable Ensemble’s work for Glass’s sublime Satyagraha a few years ago, but that narrative-free work called out for a strong collaborative theatrical expression. Here however, they still manage nonetheless to find an imaginative way to work with the rather more banal reality of The Perfect American, keeping it visually engaging and thematically relevant through projected animation sequences and supernumeraries playing the larger-than-life rabbits of Disney’s mind, avoiding any Mom and Apple-Pie clichés or overly literal depictions of small-town Americana.

The performances of the cast at the Madrid world premiere run in the Teatro Real (viewed via Internet streaming) were also exceptionally good. Christopher Purves was an outstanding Walt Disney, but all the cast managed to inject some personality into their characters and even some sense of melody into their singing. As scored by Glass however, there wasn’t much of that in the lifeless orchestration of bland repetition that lacked and real dynamic or variety in tempo and seemed to have no sense of a distinct dramatic character or expression for the work. It’s a long way from Glass at his most original and operatic best in Einstein on the Beach, Satyagraha or Akhnaten, but Glass has shown himself in more recent times to still be creatively inspired when the subject (Kepler) or the source (Kafka, Cocteau) are worthy. Walt Disney and The Perfect American doesn’t seem to fire the composer’s imagination this time, and it seems hardly likely to excite audiences when it comes to the English National Opera this summer.

The Perfect American is available to view via internet streaming - with some region restrictions in the UK - on Medici.tv and on ARTE Live Web.

PenalPhilip Glass - In The Penal Colony

Armel Opera Festival, Szeged, Hungary 2012 | Petr Kofroň, Viktorie Čermáková, Jiři Hájek, Miroslav Kopp, Dominik Peřina, David Steigerwald, Nikola Pažoutová, Eva Rovenska, Andrea Svobodová, Antonín Kaška, Petr Brettschneider | Internet streaming - ARTE Live Web, 10 October 2012

In The Penal Colony derives from an interesting strand of Philip Glass’s wide and successful range of popular musical ventures that take in soundtracks and theatre music as well as more traditional classical forms of operas, symphonies and concertos. Written in 2000 and scored for a string quintet, In The Penal Colony - based on the short story by Franz Kafka - sits in that indeterminate category of the composer’s music that lies somewhere between theatre music and chamber opera, one that takes in scores composed for films with existing soundtracks (Tod Browning’s Dracula), his Cocteau soundtracks and operas (Les Enfants Terribles, La Belle et la Bête), and actual theatre music, of which Kafka’s Metamorphosis is already one of Glass’s best known and much quoted works, used as incidental music on countless television ads, documentaries and trailers.

Requiring only five musicians and two singers, a single act opera running to only 90 minutes in length - even more minimalist than usual for a minimalist composer - In The Penal Colony’s structural composition and the tone of its repetitive rhythms is nonetheless an arrangement that is perfectly suited to the ambience and ambiguity of one of Kafka’s most unsettling and enigmatic works. On the one hand, it exposes the irrational and unquestioning respect the individual has for authority, as a Foreign Visitor accepts an invitation to visit a penal colony, despite having no particular interest in going there, since it would appear rude not to accept the invitation of the camp’s Commandant. This is also tied into the likewise irrational concepts of nationality and the pride for one’s home country - “Who would we be, where would we be if we forget where we come from” - an attitude that gives the state the authority to wage war or carry out executions on one’s behalf such as the one about to be performed on one prisoner at the penal colony.

The visitor is expected to be impressed with the ruthless efficiency of the machine constructed by the former commandant at the colony, an apparatus with a harrow of sharp needles that will carve the words of the prisoner’s crime into his bound naked body - the immortal words of warning to all who disobey the laws of the land created by people better than ourselves - “Honour thy Superiors”. Being Kafka, the prisoner, of course, is allowed no defence and hasn’t even been informed of the crime he is supposed to have committed. He’s characterised as dog-like and, if left to roam the hills, likely to come back when whistled to face his execution. Being Kafka, the allegorical work is also about far more than just an exploration of the inhumanity of capital punishment, or indeed beyond even any simplistic attempts to associate it alongside other such equally complex longer works such as The Castle or The Trial as being about the individual being crushed by oppressive authority, faceless bureaucracy and uncaring governance, but it takes in some very personal responses of the author to his own position - particularly his relationship with his father - while also touching on so many other dark human characteristics, fears, responses and impulses relating to power, submission, humiliation and, of course, dehumanisation.

What’s marvellous about Philip Glass’s scoring of the In The Penal Colony, is that it works hand-in-hand with the simplicity of the surface relating of the story through its repetitive rhythms, while using the subtle variations of tone that can be detected in the clear transparency of the instruments and the playing of the small musical ensemble to suggest those other nuances. Any kind of larger operatic scoring would surely be overbearing and overemphatic when set to Kafka’s ideas, and Petr Kofroň, directing the chamber orchestra of the Josef Kajetan Tyl Theatre Opera of Pilsen in the Czech Republic (who better to interpret Kafka than a Czech ensemble?), clearly seems to be aware of this. The overall production - directed by Viktorie Čermáková - and the performance of the musicians are excellent in this respect, engaging the interest of the audience in the absurd but very real horror of Kafka’s dark parable through simple touches that show how important interpretation is for an opera than requires more than just the mere mechanical reproduction of simple rhythms.

It’s a work then that, for all the difficulties of characterisation that the absurd story represents, calls on a degree of interpretative skill from the singers as well as the musicians to make all the various levels that it works on meaningful. The Armel Opera Festival contestant involved here, baritone Jiři Hájek singing the role of the officer or commandant, certainly had every assistance from the production and the musicians and sang the role exceptionally well, if he was perhaps a little stiff and inexpressive in his performance. Unfortunately, particularly for a work that only has two singing parts, he wasn’t well supported by the tenor Miroslav Kopp as the Foreign Visitor, who in addition to struggling with English diction also strained to sustain notes and their pitch. This however was overall a fine production and performance of an intriguing work that worked incredibly well on the stage as an opera, opening up its myriad complexities and infinite meaning.

The Armel Opera Festival production of In The Penal Colony is currently available to view on-line from the ARTE Live Web site.

SatyagrahaPhilip Glass - Satyagraha

The Metropolitan Opera, New York | Dante Anzolini, Phelim McDermott, Julian Crouch, Richard Croft, Rachelle Durkin, Molly Fillmore, Maria Zifchak, Mary Phillips, Kim Josephson, Bradley Garvin, Richard Bernstein, Alfred Walker | The Met: Live in HD - November 19, 2011

It’s taken a long time for Philip Glass to find acceptance in his home city of New York, his success and popularity as a living modern composer undoubtedly regarded with some suspicion by music critics, as well as his ability to blur the lines between classical and modern music through the writing of numerous film scores and symphonies based on David Bowie albums. Mainly however, it has to be admitted, the criticism has been principally on a failure to grasp the value of his minimalist approach to music that consists of long sections of repetitive rhythms with slowly changing parts, music that seems to be more mathematical in its structure and precision than relating in any meaningful way to human emotion or expression. It’s a valid criticism, but it’s one that a serious consideration of Glass’s 1980 opera Satyagraha very strongly refutes, and with this production at the Metropolitan Opera, it seems as if recognition for the brilliance of the work – one of the greatest opera works of the late 20th century – and for Philip Glass has finally been achieved.

The Met have of course been more receptive towards Philip Glass than the music critics, with his first opera Einstein on the Beach – an abstract avant-garde theatrical project that is undoubtedly one of the composer’s more difficult works – performed there in 1976. It was the Met who also commissioned Glass to write The Voyage (1990), an opera to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus, which, if it approached the subject from a typically oblique angle, was however rather more conventional in its musical form. Of all Philip Glass’ opera works, Saytagraha remains one of the most interesting, shaped as it is by period of its writing with Glass still in minimalist mode but moving towards a more conventional use of classical orchestra instrumentation. Forced by necessity of the size of the orchestra pit of the commissioning house in Rotterdam, Satyagraha is distinctive also for making use only of strings and woodwind instruments, with no percussion or brass, and some supplemental electronic organ to hold the rolling sequences of rhythms.

Satyagraha

There is however one more vital component to the sound and the score for Satyagraha that doesn’t require space in the orchestra pit, and that is the composer’s remarkable and unconventional use of the voice in the opera. Apart from the ensemble arrangements for duos, quartets, sextets and choir, what is significant and unconventional about how the voice is implemented in Satyagraha, is that it the libretto is sung in Sanskrit, the words broken down into syllables that give additional force, rhythm and another layer of instrumentation on top of the orchestration. The choice of Sanskrit is, of course, not random, but inextricably tied into the purpose, the themes and the expression of the subject of the opera, which deals with Mahatma Gandhi, specifically his early years in South Africa where he first formulated his principles of non-violence and civil disobedience working as a lawyer for the immigrant Indian population there.

The entire libretto of Satyagraha, written and arranged by Glass and Constance De Jong, is drawn from an ancient Hindu scripture, the Bhagavada Gita, and what is highly unusual about its use is not just that it’s sung in Sanskrit, but that this sacred text replaces any kind of conventional narrative spoken by the principal characters. Gandhi would have meditated on the Bhagavada Gita, and rather than use any external means of expression through the libretto for the actions of Gandhi and his supporters during this period in their following the path of truth (the meaning of the word “satyagraha” is roughly “truth force”), Glass chooses to have his characters look inward as a means of dealing with the increasing violence, prejudice and injustice enacted by the European South Africans against the blacks and Indian immigrants. Used in this way, the rhythmic intoning of the verses of the Bhagavada Gita are attuned Janacek-style to the tone and inflections of the voice with a mantra that seems to bear the sacred voice of truth. Working in conjunction with the barest outline of the setting of the real-life events, the words of the libretto and their delivery combine to create a near-religious purity of expression that has all the sincerity, conviction and spirituality of a Handel oratorio.

It starts as one voice, initially Gandhi alone (sung well in this production by Richard Croft), who has just arrived in South Africa as a young lawyer, and has immediately been put off the train for failing to give up his seat to a white man. In a moment of silence before the music and singing commences, he looks at his suitcase lying in the dust as if trying to decide whether to just give up and go home. Instead he turns his thoughts inward, finding the determination to go take up the struggle in the Bhagavada Gita’s description of the great conflict between the Kuruvas and the Pandavas. That voice is taken up by others as the opera progresses, his secretary Miss Schlesen, Kasturbai and Mrs Naidoo, culminating in an extraordinary sextet by all the principals through the New Castle March of Act III, each of them finding truth in the words and the strength to stand up to the injustice of the South African government’s racially discriminatory laws. There are few real dramatic reconstructions, not one word written that attempts to describe the narrative playing out of events or the interaction between the characters. The characters for the most part face the audience and express the truth as it is written in the Bhagavada Gita, and find their strength and unity through this.

Satyagraha

That’s very difficult to get across on the stage, particularly as the ancient Sanskrit text is not translated into English surtitles for the audience, but the opera is only difficult if the audience is expecting a conventional narrative. Words, and attempts to define or interpret their meaning, would just get in the way here. The meaning should come through the intoning and recital of the vocal arrangements themselves, driven forcefully with the accompaniment of the orchestra. It helps however if there is something visually interesting and relevant to focus on in the place of dramatic action. That might not have been there in previous very rare productions of the opera (the Stuttgart production of Satyagraha by Achim Freyer, currently the only version available on DVD), that perhaps haven’t been able to bring the meaning across quite as well as it’s done here. Directed by Phelim McDermott, with the set designs by Julian Crouch and the Improvisational Puppetry of their Improbable theatrical company’s skills ensemble, this production manages to find a balance between the stylised setting of the events in Gandhi’s life in South Africa between 1893 and 1913, the words of the libretto – some of which are projected in English onto the set designs – and the wider context of the opera and the meaning of satyagraha, past, present and future (in Tolstoy, Tagore and King).

I first saw this production of Satyagraha when it premiered in London at the English National Opera in 2007 (and again when it was revived in 2010), and even then it was clear how those subjects and the broader meaning of Gandhi’s message in the opera were still relevant and successfully put across by the inventive but unfussy production that combined spectacle with meaning. That relevance is perhaps even more pronounced at the present time, with the power of non-violence and peaceful demonstration evident in upheavals in the Arab world, but also in events closer to home at St Paul’s in London and, not so far away from the Metropolitan Opera itself, contemporaneously on Wall Street. The timing seems fortuitous, resulting in deserved recognition belatedly given to Satyagraha and Philip Glass in standing ovations at the Met global broadcast around the world in HD-Live, but the truths expressed in the opera itself have always been there, only needing the means to spread the word and find an audience who will be receptive to it. It’s gratifying to see then that the same global communications technology that played such a vital part in the Arab revolutions as a new Indian Opinion could, albeit in a much less important way, help gain wider appreciation for this particular work, but – who knows? – some might even find deeper inspiration from the truths expressed in it.