by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
We watched Anna Nicole, a BBC-4 telecast of a new opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage with libretto by Richard Thomas based on the story of the tabloid queen who rose from dirt-poor beginnings in a small Texas town called Mexia (her birth name was Vickie Lynn Hogan, she acquired the “Smith” from her first husband Billy Smith — whom she met while both were working in a fast-food joint in Mexia, and who fathered her son Daniel — and the “Anna Nicole” she thought of herself when she was selected as Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the Year for 1993. I wasn’t sure what to expect — while Anna Nicole Smith was alive I had a morbid curiosity about her story but avoided getting obsessed about it — but as staged at Covent Garden, which commissioned it, Anna Nicole the opera was a delight start-to-finish.
Oh, it makes at least a pretense at doing social commentary on wealth, celebrity and the media (the last represented by most of the characters singing their arias into prop microphones and a few oddly dressed dancers wearing nothing but black body stockings and headdresses to make them look like cameras), but for the most part it’s content to revel in the sheer absurdity of Anna Nicole’s story. The telecast we were watching contained some (blessedly) brief interviews with Turnage, Thomas and Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who sang Anna Nicole and vividly brought her to life both physically and vocally. The show mentioned that she had a voice coach drilling her on her accent; it was perfectly credible and capped a stunning performance where, even as a non-native English speaker, she caught the mood of the music and easily met its technical demands while also pulling off the difficult feat of turning a cartoon character, which is what the real Anna Nicole basically turned herself into, into a multidimensional human being.
Anna Nicole Smith essentially finished what the recently deceased Elizabeth Taylor began — the divorcement of celebrity from any actual achievement. It’s been a commonplace to write about Liz, both during her lifetime and in the obituaries, that though she made movies (including some that were major hits) what really got and kept her in the news were the ins and outs of her private life: her marriages, her illnesses, her addictions. The phenomenon was helped along by the death of the studio system and its highly elaborate infrastructure to keep derogatory information about the stars from ever reaching the public (or, conversely, to get derogatory information out about a star the studio no longer wanted anything to do with; Judy Garland knew her days at MGM were numbered when someone from the studio leaked one of her suicide attempts), and also the development of mass-market tabloids like The National Enquirer and Confidential that specialized in sleazy stories about stars.
Anna Nicole Smith led a fascinating life but didn’t really accomplish anything creatively — she consciously patterned herself on Marilyn Monroe but at least Marilyn was a genuinely talented actress, comedienne and singer whose movies are still entertaining people, whereas when Anna Nicole died I predicted that in 45 years she would have the same reputation as Peaches Browning (and if you asked, “Who’s Peaches Browning?” — a belle of the 1920’s who, like Anna Nicole, achieved money and notoriety by marrying a rich man several decades her senior — you proved my point) — but there’s compelling drama in her rise from poor white trash in Texas (with a toothless cousin Shelley, played in the opera by Loré Lixenberg, and a mom who dumped her on Anna’s aunt Kay) to stripper to Playboy centerfold to wife of octogenarian oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall (they married on June 27, 1994 and less than 14 months later Marshall died, precipitating a bitter battle over his estate between her and his blood relatives that was still pending in the courts when Smith herself died of a drug overdose on February 8, 2007 at age 39) to increasingly desperate widow attempting to keep the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed despite the efforts of the Marshall family to disinherit her, to national joke as her weight gain (one of the most powerful moments of the opera is Anna Nicole’s aria in praise of junk food) and drug-influenced public embarrassments (she’d be invited to awards shows and Larry King Live — Larry King actually appears as a character in the opera) made her fodder for comedians, and the paternity battle over the daughter, Danielynn, she conceived late in life just poured gasoline on the fire of her public reputation as just about every straight male in the vicinity came forward with a claim to have sired the baby.
Musically, Anna Nicole is by far the most successful attempt at integrating rock music and other forms of contemporary pop into an opera I’ve heard — most of the so-called “rock operas” of the 1970’s were really song cycles, some of which (notably the Who’s Tommy and, less so, Quadrophenia) worked as rock but didn’t really come off as operas, while others sank under the weight of their own pretensions and didn’t work as either — and Turnage’s style reflects the influences he copped to in his interview, including jazz as well as 1960’s TV scores like Mission: Impossible and Ironside (ironically, both written by major jazz musicians: Lalo Schifrin and Oliver Nelson, respectively), along with the really big elephant in the room when it comes to Turnage’s influences: Stephen Sondheim.
When I listened to Thomas Adés’s opera Powder Her Face — the only other opera I can think of with as much blatant sexual content as this one — I joked that he should have a room in his house where he lights candles to photos of Kurt Weill; Turnage should have one where he lights candles to pictures of Sondheim, because though Sondheim has never attempted a through-sung opera (as opposed to a musical), Anna Nicole bears the hallmarks of his style: occasional flights of lyricism (notably Anna’s aria about her success as a stripper, “You’ve Got to Have a Little Luck” — which has a direct Sondheim connection to “You’ve Gotta Have a Gimmick” from Gypsy, composed by Jule Styne to a lyric by Sondheim) but mostly songs cobbled together from diffuse and rather jerkily connected melodic fragments. (Also, Turnage seems to have copied the four-note “Anna Nicole” motif from the theme song of the short-lived “reality” TV series Anna Nicole starred in as herself.)
As a means of portraying a life that was itself diffuse and rather jerkily connected, this style works quite well — and if Turnage seemed influenced by Sondheim, his librettist, Richard Thomas, sometimes sounded like Frank Zappa, notably in the scene in which Anna Nicole is told by her fellow strippers (oops, “lap dancers” — the text makes a big deal out of the distinction) that the reason she’s bombing at the club is her breasts aren’t big enough, and the libretto shoehorns just about every vulgar euphemism for breasts into the big choral number that ensues much the way Zappa seemed determined in 200 Motels to squeeze in every vulgar term he could find for the male sex organ. Anna Nicole also scores in the vivid artifice of the production — it tells her story in chronological order instead of playing fast and loose with the time sequence and leaving the audience wondering, “When are we?,” but it also offers some dazzling lighting effects and scenic transformations that are impressive enough on television and probably even more so “live” — and it’s a tour de force for Westbroek.
I don’t know what her level of understanding of English was before she took on this role (though Charles has told me that many Dutch people speak English as a second language) but her ability to sing not only in English but in a credible Texas-accented version of it is incredible. What’s more, it’s also a physically as well as vocally demanding role — she’s onstage through almost the entire opera and her two longest absences from the stage are timed so she can be physically transformed (outfitted with the huge fake breasts she acquires in the middle of Act I and later padded out to the zaftig form of the older Anna Nicole in the middle of Act II) — and it’s not an easy piece to sing: at one point, angry with her son Danny for trying to keep the duffel bag containing her drug supply out of her hands (ironically since he himself died of an O.D. about a year before she did — and Thomas’s script depicts her love for her son as the one noble aspect of Anna Nicole’s sordid life and strongly hints that after her son died, she lost the will to live), she says that if he doesn’t give her the drugs she will scream — and her “scream” is a marvelously tongue-in-cheek rendition of old-style coloratura vocal display which Westbroek definitely nails.
I was grimly amused by the BBC commentator’s warning in the opening announcement that the opera’s theme was sordid and it would contain blatant sexual content — as if this were some sort of departure from an art form that in its 19th century heyday regularly gave us stories of murder, rape, incest, insanity and even genocide — and though I’m not sure how long Anna Nicole will survive in the repertory (not only is it a time-sensitive telling of a story that has already almost totally slipped from the public consciousness but it has plenty of celebrity references to people like Bruce Willis and Dolly Parton that won’t mean much in a few decades), especially since Westbroek’s performance is so fantastic it’s hard to imagine any other soprano playing this role, as it stands it’s a marvelous work that proves that modern opera can actually be fun. I was thinking about another recent opera (also a fact-based story) Charles and I had watched not long ago, John Adams’ Doctor Atomic — with one key cast member in common with Anna Nicole: baritone Gerald Finley sang J. Robert Oppenheimer in Doctor Atomic and Anna Nicole’s lawyer/lover, Howard Stern, here — and though Doctor Atomic was obviously a far more “important” story, Anna Nicole was a lot more entertaining.
I enjoyed Anna Nicole even though there was almost nobody in it one could actually like — about the only voices of reason in the whole dramatis personae were J. Howard Marshall (played by tenor Alan Oke, who managed to turn him into a genuinely sympathetic figure instead of the terminally naïve sugar-daddy this type of character usually comes across as) and Anna Nicole’s mother Virgie (mezzo Susan Bickley), whose policewoman’s uniform gives her an air of authority as she sings her voice-of-reason comments on her daughter’s life. Anna Nicole could have done more with the subject — there could have been more social commentary, the scene of her Playboy photo shoot should have been included, and one wishes Turnage and Thomas had given her an introspective aria at the end, reflecting on the futility of her life, instead of a diva mad scene — but as it is it’s quite entertaining and manages to make the most of a trivial story without becoming trivial itself.