Watch the Lincoln-Disney Debate in Philip Glass’ New Opera

Slate's Culture Blog
Feb. 11 2013 11:47 AM

Watch the Lincoln-Disney Debate in Philip Glass’ New Opera

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Zachary James as an animatronic Lincoln in The Perfect American

YouTube/Medici.tv

For the next 83 days, Medici.tv will be presenting a TV-quality broadcast of the recent Italian premiere of a new opera by Philip Glass. Titled The Perfect American—and adapted from Peter Stephen Jungk’s novel of the same name—it’s a tale of Walt Disney’s last days, in which the media titan slips in and out of what we might call empirical reality.

I found the opera uneven on the whole, albeit a joy to listen to—but the climax of the first act really demands to be seen as well as heard. In it, Walt Disney, while supervising the team that is building one of the Animatronic American Personages that have become part of his parks’ public lore, gets into a debate with his Robot Lincoln—about the scope of Honest Abe’s liberalism, and whether it properly extends to Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington and the bearded hippie set.

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We asked Medici.tv to clip us a portion of the 10-minute scene, so we could share it here, and they generously provided the 3-minute excerpt below. For the rest of the scene, which starts at the 50-minute mark of the broadcast, go to Medici.tv. (After creating a login, you can not only watch The Perfect American, but also Medici’s future live events, many of which are free to stream in real-time, as well as their archive of past broadcasts.)*

The schism between the robot and Disney’s technicians stems from the surprising fact that the animatronic Lincoln seems to have a mind of his own. And so the developer team brings Lincoln to Disney, who tries to convince the robotic president that they both belong to the same class of Iconic American. (“We’re folk heroes, Mr. President. But we have enemies …”) Not getting quite the response he wants, Disney tries another tack, by asking (among other things): “Martin Luther King, Eldridge Cleaver, is that what you wanted? Doesn’t that go too far even for you, Mr. President? The black people’s march in Washington; would you really agree with that?”

The stage direction sometimes falters over the course of the 2-hour opera, but in this scene, Abe’s twisting and turning inside the web of wiring that connects him to Disney’s machinations is really well handled—right up until the Abe meltdown.

If you’ve got 2 hours to spare some time, The Perfect American is an interesting watch, despite being uneven.* In the annals of Glass operas, this is certainly no Satyagraha. But it’s hard to judge exactly where the new stage work sits in the composer’s catalog, in part because he writes them faster than the laggard American Opera Industry seems able stage them—New York is still waiting for local premieres of Appomattox, Glass’s Civil War stage piece, as well as his adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. The Medici.tv stream is a welcome and notable break from the recent tradition of Glass premieres being inaccessible to everyone outside of the international opera jet-set. Lincoln would probably approve.

Correction, Feb. 11: This post originally said that it cost $3.99 to watch The Perfect American on Medici.tv. In fact, the program is free.

Seth Colter Walls is a freelance reporter and critic whose writing has appeared in Newsweek, the Village Voice, the Washington Post and the Awl.