The Perfect American


Philip Glass

Phelim McDermott

Dan Potra

Video Design:
Leo Warner (59)

Director of Animation:
Joseph Pierce (59)

Ben Wright

Lighting Designer:
Jon Clark

The Perfect American

ENO / Teatro Real Madrid

About this Project

The Perfect American - a new commission from Philip Glass with a libretto by Rudy Wurlitzer - presents a fictionalised account of the last days of Walt Disney before he dies of cancer, haunted by the memories of his family and associates, and the ghosts of the many animated characters he created.

Directed by Phelim McDermott (Satyagraha, The Enchanted Island, Alex, Panic etc.), with designs by Dan Potra, lighting by Jon Clarke and movement by <b>Ben Wright</b>, the production posed the team at 59 Productions a number of difficult challenges. First: how to represent the work of Disney without actually using a single frame from any of the fiercely protected canonical works, and Second: how to merge the spirit of animation with a live on-stage performance.

Video designer (and 59 director) Leo Warner approached regular collaborator Joseph Pierce - who directed and personally created the animation for a number of 59-produced films including multi award-winning A Family Portrait and The Pub - to work as Director of Animation on the production. Joseph's approach is to meticulously hand-trace previously shot live-action material, accentuating and sometimes exaggerating actions and physical features, introducing distinctive quirks and occasional transmogrifications, lending every element a highly personalised, hand-created look. Animated actors transform into sinister bunnies, static outline backdrops suddenly take on colour and life,

This original material was then layered into the stage production and blended with Potra's dynamic mechanical set (which includes huge mechanical arms which track large translucent screens which carry projection around the stage). The result is a piece which lays bare the process and many stages of animation, occasionally and fleetingly flooding into fully-rendered set pieces before dissipating again into the component parts of line, texture and surface, echoing the transcendent music which often resembles a film score more than an opera.

Selected Reviews

"What gives the show depth and dazzle is McDermott’s use of video animations (59 Productions) and his acting group Improbable to evoke both the flickering film of early Hollywood and an animal kingdom that, unlike Disney’s, is more sinister than cuddly. The dark climax is the arrival of Lucy, a trick-or-treating girl dressed as an owl (Lomas again) — for Disney a terrifying portent of his impending doom. The opera should have finished with Disney’s death, but it’s still an engrossing two hours."

**** The Times

"Even more impressive than Christopher Purves was the production itself, directed by Phelim McDermott with his theatre company Improbable responsible for the excellent fast-moving design, created by animations projected on numerous curtains falling from the ceiling."

**** The Express

"The Perfect American considers an important 20th-century figure - in this case that icon of American popular culture, Walt Disney. As with Satyagraha, ENO’s production is in the imaginative hands of Phelim McDermott of Improbable, with unusually apposite video designs by Leo Warner and animation direction by Joseph Pierce, both of 59 Productions; other regular Improbable collaborators Dan Potra (sets and costumes) and Ben Wright (choreography) are also on board. Visually, the result is a fully integrated show that cleverly manages to suggest iconic elements of Disney imagery without actually quoting them."

The Stage

"The production waves a magic wand over the opera, using cartoon images, projections and a large cast of extras to create the world of fantasy" 

*** The Financial Times

"On a set which evokes a film studio, Phelim McDermott’s production offers another of his slick and fluent exercises in stagecraft, combining 59 Productions’ imaginative video (which for copyright reasons can’t include any Disney footage) with a lot of old-fashioned revolving and cascading."

*** The Telegraph

"This is a theater piece with a point, and director Phelim McDermott's brilliant production encapsulates Disney's achievements and his nightmares. Designer Dan Potra's rotating rig of scrims and old-fashioned movie projectors displays video of drawings and deliberately simple animations by Leo Warner and Joseph Pierce (both of 59 Productions) that set the scene, and can switch from benign to sinister in an instant." 

Wall Street Journal