Anna Nicole: a new $#@*ing opera

Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas have brought Anna Nicole Smith’s silicone-enhanced charms to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a co-production with the New York City Opera.

cMark-Anthony Turnage (score) and Richard Thomas (libretto),
Anna Nicole. Brooklyn Academy of Music, September 19, 2013 (BAM and New York City Opera co-production). Production by Richard Jones, conducted by Steven Sloane with Sarah Joy Miller (Anna Nicole), Susan Bickley (Virgie), Rod Gilfry (Stern), Robert Brubaker (J. Howard Marhsall II), Christina Sajous (Blossom), many more

The basic conceit of Anna Nicole is that people singing obscenities at top operatic volume is really funny. You may or may not agree with this; personally, I found the effect wore off after about five minutes. Its comic effect depends on our expectations for opera as a highfalutin’ cultural activity.  Anna Nicole’s story isn’t unusual in opera–she’s a modern Manon–but the soloists and chorus screaming out naughty language are, and to a lesser extent the score’s slides into jazz are also mildly transgressive. (Redneck caricatures coloratura-ing a blue streak are what made librettist Richard Thomas famous in his earlier work, Jerry Springer: The Opera. That was a scruffier Fringe Festival endeavor compared to Anna Nicole’s Royal Opera House–where the opera was first seen in 2011–high gloss. I think this kind of cheeky fusion is more convincing on a lower budget.)

We open with the chorus, describing Anna Nicole’s tale in a prologue that seems to be borrowed from Sweeney Todd. They present her as both an “absurdist tale of woe” and a “fabulous eccentric.” The first half of the opera presents in a series of short scenes a relatively amusing, obvious satire of American trashiness. This shows Anna’s rise to fame through fast food, teen motherhood, and stripperdom. Finally she marries the elderly oil baron J. Howard Marshall II. In the second half, Marshall dies and the opera suddenly makes an awkward jump of a decade to show Anna in addicted decay. It leaves out the years of Anna Nicole’s legal fights in favor of showing her final months and attempts to be a tragedy and indict the grotesque pleasure we took in the first half. The chorus becomes a creepy voiceless swarm of dancers with cameras as their heads.

It doesn’t really work; the creators want to have their satiric cake and eat it too. One problem is that Anna is left more or less a spectator in her own story. She is presented as superficial and incredibly stupid (the occasional note that she was “smart” doesn’t counteract what it is showing us the rest of the time), as well as passive and reactive. The libretto’s baffling lacuna is also at fault here, excising the years where she was a Famous Big Personality but rather showing her pathetically trying to deal with the consequences. The original soprano who sang Anna Nicole, Eva-Maria Westbroek, has a hefty voice and was imposing and ungainly onstage. Sarah Joy Miller, singing Anna Nicole here, has a much slighter presence both physically and vocally. Her default expression is a deer-in-the-headlights look of smiling amazement, which is, to be fair, just about all the libretto gives her to work with. Lacking agency, personality, and much in the way of self-reflection, Anna succeeds as neither a heroine or an antiheroine.

The libretto is incredibly wordy. Thomas loves lists (more Gilbert cluttered than Cole Porter languid), and his verse starts tripping over itself when getting stuck on long lists of synonyms for breasts, deadbeats, etc. I swear that the composition of this libretto must have involved a very profane thesaurus. These lists usually end with a line like “you get the picture,” as if the situation is simply too outrageous for his words to contain. The language is an intentionally heightened, stilted colloquialism that is sometimes funny but mostly vocally unfriendly and sometimes less stylized than just plain dated (even my family doesn’t say “harsh the vibe” anymore).

It would really be better if the music could do more narration and the words less. The voice developed by Turnage is a jazzy sort of Sondheim with some operatic effects used for comedy and, occasionally, a more lyrical arioso. Mostly, he sets the words dryly for maximum comprehensibility. You can understand most of them, but there’s a lack of a controlling musical voice. The score could have done a lot to reconcile and prepare for the mood shift between the two halves, it could have deepened the characters, but instead it contents itself with being inconsequential. The best stretch is instrumental–in the interlude bridging the libretto’s decade gap–but its would-be Wozzeck moment doesn’t have a dramatic context. Similarly, the orchestra could do more–though to be fair, it was probably doing a lot that I didn’t notice. From my seat, the sound design was both obviously miked and heavily favored the voices. (Steven Sloane conducted, but I could hear so little orchestra I can’t say anything about him. It stayed together, and seemed well-paced.)

The strongest element of the opera is Richard Jones’s inventive, fluent production, which has been transferred from London. It keeps the action moving and offers genuinely amusing visuals. Miriam Buether’s colorful sets and Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes are also great: there is a lot of bright pink, giant plastic animals, a giant mattress, and a tendency for dying characters to finagle their own body bags. The ensemble is less universally strong and dramatically attuned than it was in London, but they’re all giving it their best and their Texas accents are far more consistent. Miller seems a little too cute for Anna Nicole, and never convincingly debauched. Susan Bickley, the lone holdover from London, makes a strong impression as her mother, but the character is awkwardly transformed from a monster to the voice of conscience. Broadway stalwarts James Barbour and Mary Testa are wasted in the tiny roles of Anna’s father and aunt, while Richard Troxell has a better cameo as her plastic surgeon. Robert Brubaker is funny and loud as J. Howard Marshall II, and Rod Gilfrey is also wasted in the small role of lawyer Howard Stern (reportedly cut down before the London premiere due to threats of litigation from the real Howard Stern–fittingly, the character frequently enters pronouncing his intention to sue everyone).

I remain somewhat uncomfortable with this opera. It makes me feel unexpectedly sorry for the real Anna Nicole, who seemed never fully in command of herself, exploited by others in death just as she was in life. I don’t want to be naive about this or say she was just a victim, she knew how to play the game and took what she could. (Besides, I don’t know anything about her.) But we never really see that in the opera, which seems to have plenty of interest in watching a hot mess but no interest in understanding a person. (Its most persuasive act of empathy is for her son.) I can’t quite shake the feeling that here we have a bunch of privileged men again profiting from Anna Nicole’s lack of privilege. It leaves a bitter aftertaste to an opera that already is somehow less than the sum of some formidable parts.

This brings me to City Opera itself. This is a co-production with BAM, which seems to be just the right place to produce it: it’s an institution that has long explored works that cross between high culture and low. But the City Opera, now in desperate financial straits, is promoting itself as “The People’s Opera.” This seems tone-deaf. “People’s Opera” implies something populist, an element that is family-friendly, and accessible. That’s City Opera’s history. But now they put on a small season of Johann Christian Bach and Telemann operas. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, we need people who will tread where the Met doesn’t, and I hope they’re able to keep doing it. But that’s a boutique company, not a populist one. The Met’s outreach and HD series makes it look much more populist than City Opera does right now. So I hope the company survives, but am worried about their apparent confusion of mission, and wonder how they got here. If this is their last production, at least they went out with something that seems appropriate to their aims.

Anna Nicole
plays through September 28.

Photos copyright Stephanie Berger.

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  1. Woody, I can believe it was Birkhead (who does not appear in the opera), I'm just going by what I heard from various people in London before the premiere (which I reported as hearsay).

    The funniest thing is the idea that writing an opera is a good way to make a buck (or pound sterling), above all a quick one.

  2. According to British Daily Mail, Birkhead wanted to sue them (though he knew he was not mentioned), because they "tarnished" Anna's reputation with a "trashy" Opera (!?). I think that Birkhead as a well known famewhore (famous after impregnated a drug addict) was disappointed because they didn't mention him.

    Smith is (was) a lucrative commodity for sale though she died in 2007. People wrote many books about her, "Lifetime" aired a biopic in June 2013, babydaddy is exploiting her daughter in tabloids and TV shows, etc. I'm sure that Turnage-Thomas duo raked in big money from the ANS Opera. They exploit Smith's infamy just like members of Smith's estranged Texas family, babydaddy, gossip reporters…
    I like your review, very objective and realistic.