Anna Nicole: All power to boobs

That’s a quote from the libretto. There’s an aria about them. Boobs, I mean. Big fake ones.

As you may be aware, there’s an opera about the late not-so-merry (or was she?) widow Anna Nicole Smith playing at the Royal Opera House in London at present. I went and saw it, and found it fascinating, brilliant, and infuriating. Herein I will attempt to write about it. Not about how it relates to operatic history or what its media attention means for the world of opera. Because while we might have a publicity circus around this opera, what we’ve got onstage is a circus already.

Mark-Anthony Turnage–Richard Thomas. Anna Nicole. World premiere production, Royal Opera House Covent Garden, 26 February 2011 (fourth performance). Production by Richard Jones with sets by Miriam Buether, costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, lighting by Mimi Jordan Sherin and D.M. Wood, and choreogrpahy by Aletta Collins. Conducted by Antonio Pappano with Eva-Maria Westbroek (Anna Nicole), Susan Bickley (Virgie), Gerald Finley (The Lawyer Stern), Alan Oke (J. Howard Marshall II), Peter Hoare (Larry King).

This opera has been all over the news and blogosphere, so describing it feels a little superfluous, but here are the basics.

Anna Nicole in her young, semi-innocent days.

Possibly due to rumored legal threats, the opera presents Anna Nicole Smith’s life in documentary fashion. In Act 1, we see her early life through the reportage of a chorus of TV journalists. As events unfold, Anna Nicole’s family and friends comment on the action. In Act 2, things turn more personal as the reporters morph into sinister silent black figures with cameras for heads, the only allusion to Anna Nicole’s reality TV show. They observe her at every second, eager to know everything for reasons that are never clear. The sole voice of conscience is Anna Nicole’s mother, who occasionally interrupts to protest that “it so didn’t happen like that” and condemn the world to which her daughter has submitted–or that she is squeezing dry. Or both.

The plot, roughly speaking, moves from Anna Nicole’s miserable childhood in rural Texas, early marriage and motherhood, divorce, career change to stripper, career ascent as stripper via fake tits, marriage to an oil billionaire, his death, her decline into helpless drug addiction, dependence on a sleazy lawyer, her son’s death, and finally her own death at 39. We see her at her stripping job, we see her get her new boobs, and meet her decrepit consort, but increasingly, in Act 2, she disappears into her own isolated world.

Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother

This is, more or less, a number opera, though the music flows continuously. The libretto is, like Anna Nicole herself, determinedly obscene. Thomas’s ear for American speech is good enough that the few mistakes stand out (we don’t say “car park”). It also is of a flashiness that, for the first act at least, largely eclipses the sparky, energetic music. It’s not that Turnage lacks a voice, and the jazzy, slightly dissonant, angular sounds are fun. But much of the time the score just doesn’t assert itself. In Act 2 things get more interesting, including a wonderful intermezzo just as the proceedings become more serious and eventually tragic (as Anna Nicole’s son dies, there is, I think, a Kindertotenlieder reference–oh no you didn’t). Anna Nicole delivers something like a lament at the end, before tiredly climbing into her own body bag.

He’s rich.

But the very obscenity is part of the reason why this work, for all its brilliance, is somehow unfulfilling. Simply put, there’s a shortage of dramatic conflict. The excesses of American culture are skewered at every opportunity. I’m OK with this, I realize we’re a big fat target. (Sometimes I wondered if the British audience realized how much of the “satire” was simply truth–y’all know that Wal-Mart really does have an obsession with smiley faces? They didn’t make all that shit up.) The problem is that Anna Nicole the character is set up as too much a product of her culture and not enough in opposition to it. The chorus pronounces her fabulous, but she seems like a passive object of the plot, with few moments of genuine autonomy. This makes her, as a heroine or as an anti-heroine, lacking.

The text’s perspective is relentlessly male, right down to the descriptions of domestic violence and rape. Anna Nicole, proclaimed for all her obvious dumbness to be somehow street smart, never has a real moment of self-insight, something equivalent to Carmen’s fortune-telling, Violetta’s “È strano!” or even Lulu’s instinctual self-perception, and we never get a good look inside her head, empty though it may be. In her brief final monologue, she condemns America as a “dirty whore,” but it’s too little, too late, and too male again. The libretto suggests a few times that she was both victim and master of American culture, manipulator and manipulated. But it’s only an occasional theme, mostly voiced by the poignant but unintegrated character of Anna Nicole’s mother. It seems like this is where the real substance and center of the story should lie.

Cameras are intruding

The libretto’s naughtiness aspires to subversive glee. But is that possible for a production as elaborate and accomplished with as many patriarchal roots as this one? It might have worked in a gay community center’s basement during some Fringe Festival, but on the stage of the Royal Opera House, written and directed by famous and sophisticated men, there’s an uncomfortable undercurrent of exploitation. Is this another group of the privileged taking advantage of Anna Nicole Smith yet again? The (as yet empty) threat of a lawsuit from self-avowed Anna Nicole babydaddy Larry Birkhead against the Royal Opera House is fitting, and suggests the opera has now become not just a telling of her sad life but itself another strange coda to it.

I suppose that sounds like a severe condemnation, but despite its disappointments I actually enjoyed it a lot. The stagecraft on display is dazzling and full of wit, even if making fun of Texas hicks is something like shooting fish in a barrel. (I’ve never been to Texas, by the way, though I’m from a rural area not too far from Appalachia, so I have the general idea. We make meth jokes too.) It’s not always too original. The opening scene, in which a row of reporters tells us they are going to present the story of Anna Nicole, repeatedly declaiming her name at top volume, is a blatant rip-off of the opening of Sweeney Todd, right down to the staging. Also, those uniform-ish reporters plus a little house on stage, well, Jones’s Bayerische Staatsoper Lohengrin, anybody?

The Lawyer Stern thinks he’s the dad

But as a show a lot of it is brilliant, action-packed, funny (sometimes awkward funny), full of panache, and every bit as tacky as the libretto. The orchestra under Pappano sounded, as far as I could tell, great, and the cast is all top-notch and can’t be faulted for their commitment (or for their English diction). The production is a fast-changing of colorful but minimal settings with garish detail, from a strip club (with acrobatic actual pole dancers) to a Wal-Mart to Anna Nicole’s tacky final living room, and the transitions are seamless and perfectly timed.

Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Texan accent swam in and out, but as Anna Nicole she gave a star performance, and she was never less than fabulously present–or appropriately out to lunch on Anna Nicole’s distant planet–and she gave the character more heart than the libretto ever did. Vocally, she doesn’t get too many chances to use the full force of her large voice, and I can image more lyric sopranos also succeeding in the role (especially considering the light amplification). But she sounded great; her sound is truly luminous. Gerald Finley’s lawyer–a role rumored to have been rewritten when his guilty verdict in Anna Nicole’s wrongful death giving Anna Nicole drugs was overturned last month (corrected–I was not a devoted follower of Anna Nicole Smith news, sorry)–is unfortunately something of a nothing role and a waste of his talents. Alan Oke as Anna Nicole’s aged second husband got better material, sung with verve. Susan Bickley as Virgie, the mother, was almost too poignant in an opera of caricatures.

Something of a disappointment compared to what it might have been, but an interesting one. I hope it gets picked up by another house, with revisions, because it has the polish of something big with the seeds of something far more poignant. Right now, despite the awkward bits, it’s still rampantly entertaining.

There are a few more performances, but it’s quite sold out. Queue early in the morning for day seats.

Video from CBS News–not an option you get with most operas, though it’s not embedding correctly:

Photos copyright by Bill Cooper/Royal Opera House.

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  1. 'It’s not that Turnage lacks a voice, and the jazzy, slightly dissonant, angular sounds are fun'. Please could you say some more about, y'know – the music? This from the Guardian this morning:

  2. Well, in this case my next sentence was that the music was oddly reticent. There's always so much to discuss in reviewing an opera; you have to be selective. It's even worse in new opera, where you haven't heard the score before and your readers won't know the plot and so on. I focus on whatever I think is most interesting in the performance at hand. This is my hobby and I like theater stuff so it's often that. If I were writing for the Guardian I would be obliged to do it differently, but I'm not.

  3. "…I can imagine more lyric sopranos also succeeding in the role…" I haven't seen the opera myself, but I think you're probably right about that. Some weeks ago, BBC 3 radio "In Tune" had an interview with Eva and Gerald Finley. Eva thought other sopranos would love to sing it, because of the way it is written. The only question I have is 'Do other sopranos also love to play it?' It is, obviously, not just about singing. Having seen the opera yourself, which sopranos do you have in mind when it comes to singing and acting Anna Nicole?

  4. You're right about the Walmart thing. Turnage went from an unusually repressed English home (no pop allowed, no teenage stuff) to the US where he studied with Gunther Schuller. Hence his love for the quirkyness of the US, for jazz, for glitz, a mix of love and irony. This explains a lot about his musical idiom. Finley has been a Turnage intimate for decades, hence the part, but its development was stymied by the legal inhibitions. This is a basic problem with operas about real people. Thus, more creativity with Danny. In the Danny drugs aria you can hear a bit of what Turnage can really do when he lets rip. Threnody of phrmacopeia. All along Danny is there in the opera, growing up but mute. Released by death (highly symbolic, in bed with his mom) Danny at last finds lyrical freedom even if all he can intone are the names of the drugs that killed him.

  5. The question is: would you buy the CD (as asked by Intermezzo)? Or would you want to study the score?

  6. Howard Stern, Esq. WAS NOT charged with a manslaughter or wrongful death. He was exonerated in a prescription fraud case. You should check your information.

  7. @newyorker
    I think you are right, in the first two sentences, but you are also being a bit picky. After all, this is an opera review. Having witnessed the sleaziness of Stern's character in the opera and the way in which he is portrayed, Zerbinetta probably was convinced the verdict couldn't have been anything else than manslaughter. It might be an example of 'female intuition' that, for once, wasn't spot on. I don't think it's a big deal. Maybe Stern should have been charged with manslaughter, we'll never know. At least, now we know that he wasn't. Thanks for this.

  8. Hi everyone! Let's do this in order.
    Rob V.: An interesting question! It's a role that requires acting skills and a lot of guts. If this opera were staged in the US, which I hope it will be, I think most companies would want to cast an American soprano… but I'm not sure who either. I could see one of the better-singing Broadway ladies doing it.

    Doundou Tchil: YES, I agree the drug aria a great moment that I should have highlighted. There's so much to talk about here. But Gunther Schuller in Boston is… not quite rural Texas, culturally speaking.

    Brainpack: But I bought a ticket to see it onstage, not the CD. The score is one element of the production, but only part of it. It's easy to get caught up in asking "but will you want to hear it in 10 years?" and then fail to enjoy it today. Think Zeitoper!

    newyorker: I'm no ANS expert and probably am wrong, but I think I got the impression that it was something more severe than that from the opera program. I'll check on it when I get home tonight and will clarify the post when I straighten it out. I think your comment is quite ironic, actually, and further suggests that this opera has become hopelessly entangled in the issue it wants to independently critique.

  9. I think your review is a welcome addition to the countless reviews of Anna Nicole. It's always interesting to see all these different perspectives and it was very well written. Having read it again, there are still some little things:
    "In act 2, things turn more personal as the reporters morph into sinister silent black figures with cameras for heads…" I thought it was a nice touch. But, I would have thought it was meant to be less personal, more alienating. ("Cameras for heads"). Or do you mean more intrusive?
    "The problem is that Anna Nicole the character is set up as too much a product of her culture and not enough in opposition to it." But, wasn't this the problem of Anna Nicole herself? I think they're just trying to expose this problem of hers. Internally, she didn't seem able to oppose or resist all these temptations of her culture.

  10. Hi Rob, interesting questions! I meant that the cameras are a silent presence and the action unfolds with more naturalism. The newspeople in the first act control the flow of the narrative more, it's more like a series of short film clips in a documentary interrupted by voiceovers while the second half is more like a conventional mimetic structure, only with the sinister hovering cameras. The chorus is much less present in Act 2 as well.

    As for your second question, I think everything remains shallow because opera doesn't really dramatize her as an individual with an individual personality who makes or fails to make choices. You need to see her relationship to her world more clearly, whatever the nature of that relationship.