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Philip Glass' new opera, based on the life of Walt Disney, can be seen free on

Critics' Notebook: Philip Glass opera on Disney free on website

Published: Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 2AANDE

At age 76 you might think composer Philip Glass would be resting on his laurels. After all, he owns an impressive résumé as a 20th century composer, which includes the soundtracks to "Koyaanisqatsi," "The Hours" and "Mishima," as well as seminal operas like "Satyagraha" and "Einstein on the Beach."

But sitting back won't do for Glass. Evidence of that: his new opera "The Perfect American."

That work, based on the life of Walt Disney, received its world premiere Wednesday at the Teatro Réal in Madrid.

That performance is being offered during all of February as a free webstream on the online subscription and rental classical music portal

"The Perfect American" is the first opera to explore Walt Disney as its main subject. The opera was adapted by Glass and librettist Rudy Wurlitzer from a novel of the same name by Peter Stephan Jungk.

It fictionalizes the last months of Disney's life. Glass depicts Disney as a complex and contradictory figure whose youth as a European immigrant was marked by misfortune, but bolstered by his pursuit of the American Dream.

This will not be your standard biopic treatment of Disney. Instead, the opera boldly casts a fictional scope of Disney's delusions of immortality via cryogenic preservation, the tirades he inflicts on a talking Abraham Lincoln robot and a backyard labyrinth of toy trains.

Dennis Russell Davies, who has been at the helm for many of Glass' opera premieres, conducts. The production, stage-directed by Phelim McDermott, includes a cast with bass Christopher Purves as Walt Disney, baritone David Pittsinger as his brother, Roy; and soprano Marie McLaughlin as his wife, Lillian.

"The Perfect American," offers a composer with wide name recognition, especially in the United States, said Hervé Boissière, founder and CEO of the website.

"Philip Glass is connected with cinema, pop music, world music, painters, writers … so I think it's crucial to make his music available," Boissière said.

Offering the opera for free – on what is mostly a subscription site – is a savvy way to reach new (read: younger) audiences, Boissière said.

"The classical music industry moves too slowly. We need to invent new models to attract younger audiences," he said.

It certainly does not hurt that Glass' opera deals with the Disney mystique – a subject with almost universal appeal.

The French Boissière started the classical music website in 2008. Since then the site has earned an international following and is a go-to destination for classical music and opera, with many of its productions offered from Europe. The typical viewer is about 40 years old. Subscribers tend to be in their 50s.

"We're convinced there is no (audience) crisis in classical music," Boissière said. "There is just a huge change in the habits of listening to music. The user-experience expectations are totally new. Mobility, multi devices, high-definition, on-demand, innovation are the new ways for building a new audience."

The site gets roughly 100,000 visitors a month, with peaks during summer music festival time or when a big name performs – as was the case last November when the site streamed the performance by French actress Marion Cotillard of Arthur Honegger's 1935 oratorio "Jeanne au Bûcher."

The site's next big event will be the French premiere of Elliott Carter's "Two Controversies and a Conversation" on Feb. 22.

That work, written for piano, solo percussionist and chamber orchestra, was one of the last pieces Carter finished before his death last year at age 103.

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Read more articles by Edward Ortiz

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