slow light draping the spiked cylinder the gears’ teeth the spinning vane the torquing key and vertiginous spring from whence this once and once again springs Lohengrin or Brahms perhaps some music anyway some old and toothsome sound come round again and still again unlocking still and yet again the unlocked stillness teething sweetly teasing out the inner ear
[jocular cochlear jiggery pokery]
tricking and trickling out from the tight grained tight wound spring loaded shine varnished mite box of musings
"Walt Disney", as a name, has never gone away, although it was 50 years this past December 15 since Walter Elias Disney the man expired. It is likely difficult for anyone much younger than 60 to understand what a constant and continuing presence Disney the man had in U.S.life and culture straight up to the moment of his death. Philip Glass's twenty-fifth opera, The Perfect American, which on Sunday received its belated U.S. premiere via Long Beach Opera, explores and (as it were) reanimates the man in the most appropriate way: by spinning him through a mirror-fragmented jumble of stories.
Adapted, by librettist Rudy Wurlitzer, from a novel by Peter Stephan Jungk (Der König von Amerika), The Perfect American takes place during the final months of Disney's life, imagining him hospitalized and lighting out for the territory of dreams and occasional nightmares, recalling versions of his past, confronting his history, his strengths and weaknesses, what he was and became and might be in the future. Citizen Kane-like, it freights its protagonist's earliest years - here, Disney's childhood in Marceline, Missouri, in the company of his indispensable brother, Roy - ceiling-high with significance and meaning.
Dramatically, it works more often than not, producing a nuanced and faceted Portrait of the Artist as a Messy and Perhaps Unknowable Human Being. Reports from the world premiere in Madrid in 2013 focused in on the critiques, particularly the conclusion of Act 1 in which Disney voices an array of [sadly standard for their day] racist views, and is set upon by his own Audioanimatronic simulacrum of Abraham Lincoln. The racist attitudes are there, certainly, as are Disney's willingness to battle union labor and to bare knuckle it against anyone who stood in the way of his sometimes self-important creative vision. But if these flaws are not forgiven - and they are not - they play off against what their human carrier accomplished: not a business empire built on shabby real estate deals or moving other people's money around, but an empire built on finding, feeding and fulfilling the dreams of others. Disney is seen here (though the comparison is never made overtly) as a figure akin to Wagner, whose creative work is not ultimately poisoned by his sometimes deplorable personal qualities.
At Long Beach, director Kevin Newbury and his design team have confined the entirety of the literal action to Walt's hospital room and the theater of the patient's mind. When Walt casts back on his fondness for trains, hospital beds become trains. When he faces a vision of an owl that he killed in a panic as a child - the only time, he insists, that he ever killed anything - it appears as a child patient's stuffed toy and as a costume constructed from medical paraphernalia. Silhouettes of Marceline, Missouri, and of a classic Disney castle are constructed of bottles, clipboards, and the like, a surgical lamp casting their shadows on suspended bedsheets.
Philip Glass is easily and unreasonably stereotyped as nothing but a peddler of arpeggios, based on his earliest work. There was more to him then, and there is much more to him now. Glass has developed a genuine "late style" that incorporates all those swirly arpeggios and repetitions in company with a restrained but potent approach to melody (melody!) and an array of punctuation tricks in the percussion section. It is a richly whipped brew, riding long and dextrous rhythmic lines. It is also, perhaps surprisingly, a solid ground over which to sing, allowing the audience to actually hear and decipher the words and the singers to deliver them with dramatic point. The chorus, out of keeping with the usual Glass approach, is positively folksy: they sing "happy birthday," they quack and hoot, and they sing comforting bromides about dreams coming true much as the choruses do in the classic Disney pastorals.
Disney's Lincoln automaton, resident at Disneyland for over 50 years, was originally created for the 1964 New York World's Fair, where it was the centerpiece of the pavilion of the State of Illinois. (The best thing in the Disney studio's otherwise misfiring Tomorrowland was its loving recreation of elements of the Fair.) Disney and his "Imagineers" provided animatronic creations to a total of four pavilions in 1964: Lincoln for Illinois, the "Carousel of Progress" for General Electric, dinosaurs and cavemen for Ford and, most inescapably, "It's a Small World" for Pepsi. Pepsi's Moppets of the World make no appearance in The Perfect American, but Walt compares himself favorably to Henry Ford and Thomas Edison and Lincoln, as noted, looms large.
References to elements of Philip Glass's own past work are everywhere as well. Walt's love of trains, in particular, readily triggers memories of the trains in Einstein on the Beach; his yen to build things suggests Akhnaten; the collective, often mechanical effort on the part of animators, and the push against it, echo the tension between natural and mechanized worlds in Koyaanisqatsi; an owl appears prominently in Glass's portion of Robert Wilson's the CIVIL warS, as does Lincoln,whose concern for equality and racial justice Glass returns to in the recently revised Appomattox (which one can hope will find its way to southern California someday soon). The Perfect American seems at times as interesting a survey of the composer's creative history as it is a survey of Disney's.
The character of Walt Disney is on stage from start to penultimate scene (and after that, receives in this production a charmingly homespun apotheosis, waving us goodnight in a manner recognizable to anyone who grew up on The Wonderful World of Color). Justin Ryan as Walt hits all the necessary notes, musically and dramatically, only occasionally veering toward overselling the part. He is persuasive as a driven and powerful man who would rather return, if he could, to a simpler world of his boyhood. As stalwart brother Roy, Zeffan Quinn Hollis is duly stalwart; at Sunday's premiere, he doubled up as the duly righteous voice of robo-Lincoln. Suzan Hanson as Lillian Disney brought to the part some of the grounded dignity she previously displayed as Marilyn Klinghoffer, particularly in the late scene when Walt's death from lung cancer is revealed as inevitable. Jamie Chamberlin, previously one of LBO's twin Marilyn Monroes, charmed as the fictitious Walt's personal nurse Hazel George, whom he addresses as "Snow White".*
Being as it is not the Big Opera Company in town, Long Beach Opera is only able to mount two performances of The Perfect American. The remaining date is Saturday, March 18, and tickets are certainly to be had. (These performances are in the cavernous Terrace Theater, so the number of potentially available seats is not small.) Let your conscience be your guide. It is whispering that you should go.
Photos by Keith Ian Polakoff, used by kind permission of Long Beach Opera.
*Correction: The original version of this post referred to Hazel George as a fiction. Assorted fact checkers, including the singer, have pointed out that Hazel George was very real and that she was a remarkable, if hidden, figure in Disney's creative life.
This blog is a sad thing these days, a walking shadow of its once sprightly self, a faded jaded mandarin, little trafficked, neglected by its proprietor. Over the length of 2016, I find that I have more unfinished drafts than actual posts. And yet, one—at the least, this one—might hold out hope that it may bestir itself again in time.
One tradition to which I yet cling is this: "Listening Listfully", my catalogue of the album/EP-length recordings released in the past twelvemonth that most particularly tickled my fancy. This year, they number 50, but the List is like baseball: it could in theory go on without end. These are personal favorites, as always, rather than "bests"—although I maintain that everything here is here because it is genuinely among the best things of the past year, and not simply because I have enjoyed it. There are inevitably many recordings of quality omitted, simply because I have yet to listen to them.
Last year, I held out until New Year's Eve. For 2016, I am electing to post on the Eve of Christmas Eve, with the intention to follow on on Boxing Day with a 50-plus entry, properly threaded Tweetstorm on this fool's Twitter timeline. If I get truly ambitious, I will update this post to embed those tweets, and possibly to add further commentary. [Update 26 Dec 2016: The Tweetstorm broke as threatened and is now embedded at the end of this post.] In a break from recent practice, I have lumped everything into a single list, eschewing arbitrary genre boundaries. It is all just plain good music to these foolish ears.
I have incorporated opportunities to stream most of the Top 25 choices on the list. I am sufficiently old fashioned that I still prefer to buy and own music, rather than simply streaming it. I also prefer that as large a portion as possible of what I pay for music should make it into the hands of that music's makers. In consequence I find myself more than ever making use of Bandcamp, which advances both of those preferences more than passing well. Bandcamp-linked recordings on this list are purchasable there; for others, I have provided Amazon links.
Flawed, entirely subjective, and internally contradictory as always, here begins the eleventh annual edition of The List:
[First appearing in August, nearly all evidence of this exemplary ambient drone raga musing on southern California themes mysteriously "made itself air into which it vanished" from the online world earlier this month. Included here in the hope it may someday return among us.]
O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.
— Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Infinite space in a nutshell is a cogent metaphor for what the creative performative collective Four Larks offers in The Temptation of St. Anthony, scheduled to run through October 2 at [a secret location revealed to ticket holders] in downtown Los Angeles. The Temptation is as all-consuming in its concerns, and as vivid and innovative in its theatrical gestures, as Einstein on the Beach, but compresses it all into a mere 75 minutes, with a dozen performers, a set and properties scavenged and cobbled together from heaven knows where, and in a space that would not fill an Einsteinian caboose. It is a mighty microcosmos.
The intense compaction of The Temptation of St. Anthony is perhaps a tribute to its origins in Gustave Flaubert's novella. Flaubert spent nearly half his life writing the book, each successive version etched and edited to remove everything he determined to be inessential. His first draft ran well over 500 pages. Some two-thirds of that disappeared in the second draft, and so on until the page count of the final version barely topped 100. It is nearly devoid of external plot, but tells of St. Anthony of Egypt (c. 251-356) who, after many years of living the life of a holy hermit in the desert (atop a cliff, where "an aged and twisted palm tree leans over the abyss") is beset one night by doubt-driven visions designed to draw him from his holy path: the Seven Deadly Sins appear, and a series of rulers (Nebuchadnezzar, the Queen of Sheba), heretics, mages, scientists, pagan gods and philosophers descend upon him. At daybreak, he emerges tested and recommitted to his faith, resuming his pious life. The incident was long a favorite of painters, as it provided an opportunity to depict lewdness and grotesquerie under the guise of spiritual teaching. Flaubert's depiction is far more austere and inward looking. (For lewdness and grotesquerie in Flaubert, the reader is advised to consider his epic depiction of same in Salammbô.)
Four Larks describes itself as an artist operated collective, founded and guided by Artistic Director Mat Diafos Sweeney (also the adaptor/writer/composer of The Temptation, with lyrics by Jesse Rasmussen) and Creative Producer (and principal Temptation designer) Sebastian Peters-Lazaro. "Junkyard opera" is the portmanteau description for the Larks' body of work. The Temptation is described as "a euphotic rite of music, dance and visual theatre." It is less an opera or play than it is a pageant or, most accurately perhaps, a contemporary masque. Instead of in a palace or chateau, however, The Temptation plays out inside a seemingly shuttered one time wholesale floral facility a few blocks from the Grand Central Market in downtown Los Angeles.
As a courtly masque might include elaborate constructions depicting the provinces of gods or a nymphean retreat, Four Larks has devised a mystic cave environment of its own, filling its chosen space far, wide, high, and low, with books, abandoned and outmoded communications devices, artistic detritus, faux ruins, and a myriad of uncategorizable objects of all sorts, all colored a desert-blasted off white. On arrival, members of the audience can explore the eccentric desolation, perhaps with a refreshment in hand. At performance time, they are ushered into the comparably be-cluttered performance room. At the front of the floor level stage area, The Hermit (Max Baumgarten) is already present. His thick and sand dappled Bible beside him, he is focused intently on a battered manual typewriter, hard at work on what proves to be the text of The Temptation of St. Anthony.
In form, Flaubert's Temptation resembles a drama more than it does any traditional 19th Century novel. Considered as a play, The Temptation can be tied to the symbolic and nocturnal experimentalism of Strindberg's A Dream Play or Ibsen's Peer Gynt (which Four Larks took on during a period its founders spent in Melbourne, Australia). As a working premise, the conflation of the writer, the work he is writing, and the events within the work he is writing handily throws open the door to the free flowing, ambiguous shape shifting free for all that ensues.
The Temptation begins with an authorial voiceover, speaking the introductory description of the hermit and his hermitage as it is typed, but the creator is soon absorbed by the creation as the visions and manifestations come thick and fast. For much of its later stretches, The Temptation's chief speaker is not The Hermit but the dreamt version of his one time follower Hilarion (Caitlin Conlin), whose evening attire and sprightly wickedness of manner may recall the Master of Ceremonies from Cabaret. Figures historical and symbolic emerge and disappear with the rapidity of shuffled cards. Ideas and arguments fly about at breakneck speed. The Hermit is caromed about in a mazy concatenation of movement, music, light, speech, sound and surprise, emerging (as perhaps he had not expected) back at the place he began, his typewriter the still point in an uncertainly resettled world. He is left, as is his audience, to reflect upon—or more likely simply to muse and to marvel over—whatever it was that has just happened to him. As one does, when what has happened is something of a wonderment. The Temptation of St. Anthony is a wonderment like no other in recent memory, and not to be missed or resisted.
The Temptation of St. Anthony is currently scheduled through October 2, 2016. Capacity is modest and some performances are sold out. Such tickets as may be had may be sought here.
The blogger attended the September 8 performance of The Temptation of St. Anthony as a paying customer.
Photos above (l'espace) by the blogger. Photos below (les artistes) by Michael Amica, used by kind permission of Four Larks.