English National Opera's new season includes controversial Disney story

Fictionalised account of animator's life, one of nine new productions to be staged by the company, will present a 'nightmarish' vision of Walt Disney

A new work by Philip Glass about Walt Disney will have its UK premiere at English National Opera (ENO) in June 2013. Glass's opera – his 24th – is based on Peter Stephan Jungk's 2004 novel The Perfect American, a fictionalised account of the final years of Walt Disney's life, described by Glass as "unimaginable, alarming and truly frightening". The novel, narrated by Wilhelm Dantine, a fictional Austrian cartoonist who worked for the animator in the 50s, mixes fact and fantasy, including meetings with Andy Warhol and Abraham Lincoln, to discover Disney's delusions of immortality and glimpse into his murky private life. He is controversially depicted as a racist, a misogynist and an antisemite.

LA Times reviewer Richard Schickel called the book a "partially successful fiction ... [that asks us to] reflect on fame and its power to distort not just our perceptions of "great" men but on the way celebrity damages those men when they become possessed by their own falsified, falsifying images." Michael Barrier, animation historian and author of The Animated Man: A Life of Walt Disney, labelled Jungk's novel "terrible" and its author "irresponsible"; ENO confirmed that the Disney Studio will not be involved in the new production.

The mythical account will not feature Disney images or characters, but will include versions of them reimagined by director Phelim McDermott and his company, Improbable, in their distinctive visual style that made their last ENO/Glass collaboration, Satyagraha, such a success. While children over five are welcome at any of ENO's productions, artistic director John Berry has warned parents that rather than a Disney-style spoonful of sugar they should expect a more "nightmarish" vision of the iconic figure and his creations. British baritone Christopher Purves, who won acclaim as a gleefully wicked Mephistopheles in Terry Gilliam's The Damnation of Faust, will create the role of Walt Disney.

Further new work in ENO's 2012-13 season comes from Dutch composer Michel van der Aa who is collaborating with Cloud Atlas author David Mitchell on The Sunken Garden. Van der Aa is an innovative composer whose work fuses music, text and visual images into an organic whole. "As he's composing each note he's thinking about the stage direction," said Berry of the composer. Van der Aa's new opera, an ENO co-commission, will receive its world premiere at London's Barbican theatre, and will feature both 3D (a first for live opera) and 2D film, and video integrated in the live performance.

"Contemporary opera is now at the core of what we do," said Berry, who added that the coming season was about investment in new opera and nurturing British talent: more than 80% of the artists in the new season are British.

The Britten centenary and Verdi's bicentenary will be marked by a revival of Death in Venice and a new production of La Traviata by Peter Konwitschny, who is a major figure in German opera but is yet to direct in the UK. He promises a shortened, concentrated version of Verdi's opera which will run without an interval. The Wagner anniversary, however, will not be marked. "The problem [with Wagner] is finding the right singers who can sing it in English," said Berry, while also citing the prohibitive cost of mounting most Wagner operas. A Tristan and Isolde is being developed, he said, adding that the company hoped to stage a Meistersinger in future years.

A total of nine new productions and six revivals sees the return of enduring favourites including Jonathan Miller's Mikado and The Barber of Seville. Marking its 25th anniversary, Nicholas Hytner's evergreen production of The Magic Flute will be revived for the final time, opening the season on 13 September.

Among the new productions are rarities such as Martinů's Julietta – based on a production by Paris Opera which will be directed by Richard Jones, and Medea by Charpentier, in which David McVicar will direct mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly in the work's first UK staging. Handel will be represented by a new Julius Caesar, ENO's first in three decades, with direction and choreography by Michael Keegan-Dolan and Lawrence Zazzo and Anna Christy in the main roles. Enfant terrible Calixto Bieto returns to the UK with a reworking of a production of Carmen first seen in Barcelona.

ENO's continuing relationship with Vaughan Williams continues with a new production of The Pilgrim's Progress – the first time it will be professionally staged since its premiere at the 1951 Festival of Britain. "This highlights our commitment to placing British music at the heart of our creative output," said Berry, adding that he has "always had a soft spot for what he considers Vaughan Williams's finest opera". Japanese director Yoshi Oida will lead a production that promises to mix the language of eastern and western theatre.

With a £1.8m (11%) cut in its Arts Council funding, and audiences booking later and being increasingly risk adverse, Berry admitted ENO faces huge challenges. The company is experimenting with airline-style pricing models that offer discounts to early bookers, while investing in its digital marketing to build a deeper relationship with its audience.


Imogen Tilden

The GuardianTramp

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