|Sarah Joy Miller. Photo: Pari Dukovic|
It’s a special night at the opera when propulsive and richly idiomatic music is paired with a sharp and witty libretto. And it’s a unique night at the opera when an American tabloid tragedy is told with compassion and humor—also recalling the art form’s tragic heroines. Such is Anna Nicole, an opera by British composer Marc-Anthony Turnage (Greek, Blood on the Floor) and British writer Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer: The Opera), commissioned by London’s Royal Opera House which makes its US premiere in a co-production by BAM and New York City Opera and opens BAM’s 2013 Next Wave Festival on September 17.
Directed by Richard Jones (who also directed the London production) and now with conductor Steven Sloane leading the New York City Opera Orchestra (including renowned jazz drummer Peter Erskine), the cast is culled from opera and Broadway—with soprano Sarah Joy Miller in the lead role, and featuring James Barbour (A Tale of Two Cities as Daddy Hogan); Susan Bickley as Virgie; Robert Brubaker as Old Man Marshall; Ben David (A Little Night Music) as Billy; John Easterin as Larry King; Rod Gilfry (South Pacific) as Howard K. Stern; Joshua Jeremiah as Deputy/Mayor; Christina Sajous (American Idiot) as Blossom; Mary Testa (Queen of the Mist) as Aunt Kaye; and Stephen Walden as the Trucker.
Anna Nicole tells the sensational story of Anna Nicole Smith, a small-town Texas waitress and single mother (and later uber-breast-enhanced exotic dancer) in pursuit of not only a better life, but the American jackpot. Smith wed an octogenarian billionaire and became a Playboy model and tabloid celebrity, living a life of excess and substance abuse—under the constant glare of the media—until her death at the age of 39 from an accidental drug overdose.
This dynamic and poignant production addresses issues of modern celebrity, greed, and exploitation while referencing wide-ranging elements of contemporary culture—Jimmy Choo shoes, surgically-enhanced breasts (including more slang terms for them than you’ve ever heard), Dolly Parton, Yoko Ono, red carpets, tequila, minimum-wage jobs, television host Larry King (a character in the opera), and a litany of pharmaceuticals. It’s a two-act morality tale told with humor, bringing to vivid life the idiocy of tabloid culture and the sadness of desperately wrong choices. Richard Jones’ dynamic staging features a chorus of reporters commenting on the action throughout—and with increasing menace, later featuring black-clad dancers with television-heads in voracious pursuit of Anna’s every move.
Turnage notes that Anna’s story has “the big eternal themes of love, death, jealousy, marriage, sex, and money.” And, not surprisingly, an operatic soprano who dies in the end. Adds Turnage, “At one level Anna Nicole is a tragic rise and fall story, and it became clear that the piece would only work if the audience developed some sympathy for her as a character. Our intention was not to trash her and the work is dedicated to her. That said, there are plenty of comic aspects which explore irony and politics and the modern themes of drugs, celebrity, and media intrusion.” Turnage’s ravishing orchestrations include a broad spectrum of American musical styles, including jazz, blues, and musical theater. “A lot of American music has been very much a part of my life,” says Turnage.
Thomas cites “something absurdly beautiful—and eccentric—about Anna Nicole’s life story; those are qualities of the medium of opera.” His piquant libretto reveals the chaos of a life spinning out of control, while expressing compassion for Anna (who sings a moving lament upon the death of her son Danny). Thomas deftly contrasts the American dream from two perspectives: according to Anna’s husband, J. Howard Marshall II, “I am oil, I am money, I am eight decades of the American dream, still workin’ it, still dreamin’ it, still eatin’ it.” Which is a whole ‘nother story from Anna’s “I’m gonna rape that goddamn American dream. I’m gonna tear it open and lap up the cream.”
As the prologue directs, “Sit back and watch the train-wreck.”
Anna Nicole will be presented at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House from Sept 17–28. By arrangement with Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., publisher and copyright owner.
Sandy Sawotka is director of publicity at BAM.
Reprinted from June 2013 BAMbill.