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Osage opera singer performs title role in U.S. premiere of ‘The Perfect American’

Osage operatic baritone Justin Ryan plays the title role of Walt Disney in Phillip Glass' award-winning opera "The Perfect American." Courtesy Photo

The U.S. debut of Phillip Glass’ award-winning opera “The Perfect American” featured Osage operatic baritone Justin Ryan in the title role of Walt Disney. Ryan, who is known for his strong and dramatic tone, reached a new level in his career with the performance.

The two-hour and 25-minute opera, first performed in Madrid, Spain, in 2013 after the New York City Opera declined due to financial concerns, debuted in the U.S. It debuted in Long Beach, Calif., in the 3,000-plus-seat Terrace Theater of the Long Beach Convention & Entertainment Center. Ryan’s parents and Osage relatives were in attendance.

The opera is based on Peter Stephan Jungk’s novel, “The Perfect American,” which imagines the last months of Walt Disney’s life from the view of a fired cartoonist who worked for Disney. It portrays Disney as less-than-perfect and losing his grip on reality before he succumbed to lung cancer in 1966.

To prep to play Walt Disney, Ryan read biographies and watched any source footage he could get his hands on. He watched old films of Disney and studied his movements and how he talked. He also watched and studied the PBS program American Experience on Walt Disney, a two-part special on his life and legacy“The prep for the character is huge because it’s a real person, and that makes it more important to be accurate in your research,” he said. “This is a fictional account, so it’s not a non-fictional presentation ... it’s about what Walt would have thought about in his last few months of life facing lung cancer.

His next performance is in Chicago on April 22 and April 30 at the Chicago Opera Theatre. 

Ryan is a seasoned performer. He performed with the New York City Opera in 2016 as the painter Edward Hopper in Stewart Wallace’s surrealist opera, “Hopper’s Wife.” He performed the title role in Wendy Taucher’s new production of Rossini’s “The Barber of Seville” at Martha’s Vineyard and the Connecticut Lyric Opera as Count Almaviva in “Le Nozze di Figaro.” In 2015, he performed with Opera Columbus, Lancaster Opera, and the Mississippi Opera, according to his bio.

He also received his Bachelors and Master’s degrees in vocal performance from Stephen F. Austin State University.

His father, Jim Ryan (Osage) is a retired music teacher, working musician and band leader living in San Antonio, Texas. He said music has played a major role in the Revard family for over 150 years. 

In the mid-19th century, their ancestor Joe Revard and his cousin Peter Revard were the Parrish fiddlers at the French colony that would later come to be known as Kansas City, he said. Franklin Revard was a fiddler and dance caller for balls and dances in the Osage through the turn of the 20th Century, he said. Jimmie Revard led the popular western swing band, “The Oklahoma Playboys,” in south Texas in the 1930’s. They also have Osage cousins living in the Austin area, Dustin Welch and his sister Savannah, who are both successful singers and songwriters.

“His voice was rich and warm and filled the large hall without the use of microphones. His diction was perfect and as the opera was sung in English, we could understand every word. What was most compelling was his stage presence,” said his father Jim. “I couldn’t record during the performance but after the curtain fell, I recorded the standing ovation that Justin and the company members received ... It was a wonderful night.”

Justin said the pressure of playing a character being seen and heard for the first time to an American audience is something that goes with the profession. He said there is pressure to represent the work well, and new operas are expensive to produce. He also knows that even if the initial reviews of the opera aren’t that great, the more and more they are performed, the greater they become.

“This is probably the highest profile job I’ve had. You can look at my bio, I’ve sung in the Metropolitan Opera, Toledo, I had my New York City Opera debut last spring, and that sort of compares to this. The New York City Opera is obviously an important company, so I think in a way that was my greatest job in terms of prestige in level of house, this was the same, kind of that level,” he said. “People hear Phillip Glass and think ‘modern opera’ and it will have a small orchestra. But, it isn’t small, it’s a grand opera with a full 40-piece orchestra and it’s just a great score ... objectively, things are going very well and this is certainly full speed ahead.”

For more information on the Chicago Opera Theatre performances of “The Perfect American,” visit http://www.chicagooperatheater.org/perfectamerican