Skip to main content

Anna Nicole

Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) present BAM 2013 New Wave Festival the New York City Opera production of ANNA NICOLE, composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage with a libretto by Richard Thomas, in the Howard Gilman Opera House.

The above video clip is from the original production at the Royal Opera House (ROH), Covent Garden. The photograph, below, is from the BAM production.

In Feburary, 2011, while commenting on the stage musical, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, I mentioned that the Royal Opera House in London had commissioned an opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith. I ruminated that DOCTOR ZHIVAGO seemed to be a more likely subject for operatic treatment, and that Anna Nicole Smith more suitable for a Musical Theatre treatment. The reviews for the London production of ANNA NICOLE had been very good, so It was a wonderful ‘fluke’ for me to have the opportunity to attend a re-staging of the original production (with an American company of artists singing) in the Howard Gilman Opera House at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) as part of their 2013 Next Wave Festival.

This opera is based on a true story. Some characters have been invented, some events imagined or changed.

The opera, ANNA NICOLE, is told in two acts of sixteen scenes. It covers the life of an Anna Nicole who was born and grew up in very ‘straightened’, circumstances in a town called Mexia, pronounced “mu-HAY-ah”. Her family is dirt poor and not ‘gifted’, suspect, even, in the bringing up of children – abuse seems to seep through the seams of the family figures. Anna, born beautiful, but with little education opportunities, finds herself pregnant and married and divorced at the tender age of 16. A single mum, with her employment opportunities being low-wage jobs and grunt work, Walmart, for instance, the possible height of her destiny, leaves town, and heads for Houston. Finding work as a lap dancer in a “Gentlemen’s Club”, Anna finds a problem in competing with the other employees, for despite her natural beauty, she earns little attention from the customers, and, so invests in breast implants – bigger ‘titties’ will earn more attention and more money, she is advised. It, also, can have the side-effect of chronic back pain, which only drugs can relieve.

Like Camille, in the Pam Gems version of the classic Dumas story, Anna finds her best resource for success is her body and her beauty. Disfigurement and prostitution is not too high a price to pay to survive for self and kin. To get that Ranch.The dream of all the girls is to meet The Rich One. Enter an oilman, J. Howard Marshall II and both, Anna and Marshall II, fall under a spell, he for her, she for financial security. Each served the other well, it seems, and they marry in the White Dove Chapel, he, some 63 years her senior. Unlimited money gives Anna, her Ranch, security for her son, Daniel, other ambitions of her own, chronic back pain and drugs, and advice from a lawyer, Stern.

After the interval, we find Anna Nicole caught in the excitement of the Red Carpet in Jimmy Choo shoes, and becoming the Patron Saint of Parties. Virgie, Anna’s mother, and careful about her grand-son Daniel, warns her daughter of the dangers of her precarious life. Marshall II dies, there is no will, and his family refuse to give Anna ‘a dime’. The predictions come true. Re-enter the Lawyer Stern, and a ten year battle begins in the courts for ‘justice’. Skip forward, and the years are not good to Anna and her best assets, her beauty and her body, and as a victim of the media-celebrity press becomes a public relations disaster for her lawyer – enter Larry KIng and his live interview show. Later, Anna, overweight and addicted, gives birth to a daughter. For three days Anna may be happy, then, her now teenaged son, Daniel, dies in her presence, and she never really recovers from grief, and loses the will to live.

 In the action of the opera, Anna zips herself into a body bag and with one last parting kiss to us her mesmerised public – “Just let me blow you … one last kiss”-  quits the scene, whilst the press metaphorically, scratches in the refuse of the ‘world’ for a new story.

The curtain slowly descends.

A fairly obvious plot and hugely simplified broad-brush drawing of characters, the libretto is almost too baldly cliched to hold one’s interest, one would think. But truth is, so they say,”Stranger than fiction.” The music by Mark-Anthony Turnage is inspired, and when harnessed to the lyrics of the libretto by Richard Thomas (he was responsible for the libretto for JERRY SPRINGER: the OPERA, as well), which are vernacular vulgar, and become wonderfully entwined in literary and musical irony, further enhanced by witty and sophisticated staging by the director, Richard Jones, in a deliberately over-the-top design in dominant pinks by Miriam Buether, and costumes by Nicky Gillibrand, it lifts into a great contemporary, cautionary tale of our times.

Using the tragedy of the life of Anna Nicole Smith with respectful artistic licence, this team of artists, give us a journey of the everyman (everywoman) trying to pursue the great promise of The American Dream against stacked odds. It also engages us in a powerful critique of one of the scourge’s of our society, the insatiable celebrity press, that we as a democracy have empowered to reduce, if possible, in our very own homes, living rooms, others, to seamy ridicule and salacious humiliation, for our gratification. The lyrics in vernacular sex argot, accompanied by displays of pornographic suggestions and enactments in truly ‘hideous’ but sophisticatedly witty design elements, contrast, purposely, and so persuasively, in this high operatic form and sound, that it triumphantly stuns one in its effect.

At first we are encouraged to laugh at the sheer ‘dumbness’ of Anna and her ‘hick’ family. We gasp at the simple solutions in the sex drenched world that the ‘beauty’ of this tale finds herself choosing to do to survive. The shock of the big ‘tits’ are risible and the ‘beast’ in us is amused and wonder struck. We are placed in astonished disbelief and, then, awe, at the age-inappropriate relationship of Anna and her billionaire, Marshall II. Later, we are made to glean that perhaps, in its way, it served positively the needs of each of the two protagonists. We are placed in ambiguous positions of, maybe, approving. But, just as the image of the young son growing into a teenager, woven into the fabric of the opera, prepares us for retributions of catastrophic operatic proportions, in the near future, the added classic ordinariness of two families at war over money drag us teetering and then falling to disastrous and inevitable conclusions, that in this operatic form have grown to great tragedy, tragic dimensions. One is left moved and distressed.

This is clever art. Accusatorial and convincing. Modern and of the minute. This was an opera, and all that that can mean – think of the work of Verdi and especially Puccini, the melodramatic scale of their stories, and not afternoon TV ‘soap opera’. As I queried in my Diary entry on the Metropolitan Opera production of Shostakovitch’s THE NOSE, who can say the opera, as a form is museum or antiquated, when it is invented and used in such striking contemporary ways.

(Digression: I could not help but think of the place I sat in: an American theatre surrounded by Americans who embraced this story and had this withering critique of their country’s life style, culture, delivered to them by, essentially a foreign collection of artists, and still applaud and laud. This, I thought, represents democracy – an aspect of democracy – where opposing viewpoints can be respected and presented. I cannot remember when the last time I was confronted with any theatrical literature in Australia, in any of the many medium expressions available, that gave an audience what ANNA NICOLE delivered. There has to be, knocking on the doors of our cultural gate keepers, work of a similar nature around in Australia, surely? I found it staggering that Van Badham, who is a passionate commentator/observer of the social and political world, and has written powerfully for the theatre in volatile terms, had a ‘rom-com’ on the stage, at the Griffin: THE BULL, THE MOON AND THE CORONET OF STARS. Was that the only play, subject matter that could get Ms Badham’s work on to a contemporary stage in Sydney? If, it is not literary censorship (there are no such plays, or, they are so badly written, is the familiar answers , I usually receive when talking about this issue), that is not finding these authors for our stages, it must be a kind of economic censorship that protects us ‘down under’, from possible cauterising observations of our daily lives. The economic pressures to attract an audience prevents real and honest discussion of vital social issues, besides sex relationships? Is that the case? Is it that our theatre’s cannot afford confrontation, that might alienate an audience, and reduce box-office returns significantly, such that confrontational discussion is avoided, and we are left to wallow in our relaxed and comfortable, prone, comatosed lives, in the theatre, in the cinema, and on our television?

 I ask, merely, for information.

 I was flabbergasted last week when a respected newspaper commentator, Gerard Henderson, of the Sydney Institute, in his weekly column in the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that the only way to contain the (“biased”) observations of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is to defund it. I have read or heard no repercussions to that  statement. (I was so startled, that I re-read the paragraph several times.) I guess, one can only tremble, and watch these suggestions of economic censorship, come to be, again. I always felt that the Howard Government had the ‘right’ way to control public opinion, by keeping a tight purse-string on the funding of all the Arts, especially the ABC, during his time. Or, am I simply a cynical naive dolt in this area of observation and have got a skewed impression? I  also thought to myself, recently, after reading the critical opinion of the Melbourne Theatre Company’s production of David Williamson’s RUPERT, (I have not seen or read a script, yet!),  just how smart it was for the Melbourne Theatre Company to present a play with a positive spin on Rupert (is that right?) considering the times we are entering. Or, is that just a naive construct, as well?)

The lead singers, Sarah Joy Miller as Anna Nicole; Robert Brubaker as J. Howard Marshall II; Susan Bickley as Virgie, Anna’s mother; Rod Gilfry, as Stern, the Lawyer, were convincing. In support, the New York City Opera chorus, ballet and orchestra, led by Steven Sloane, were attentive, and gave a keen sense of the mood tone of the work. The ensemble company gave their all to contribute to the craftsmanship of the composer and librettist. That this was to be the last performance of this company, ever, may have given the company even more concentration and commitment to ANNA NICOLE, the opera.

This performance by the New York City Opera, on Saturday, 28th September, was literally the last of, and for, this company. After 70 years, founded in 1943, this so-called “people’s opera” as the alternative company to the Metropolitan Opera Company, was dissolved, and has filed for bankruptcy. Just as the soprano Sally Joy Miller sang as the dying Anna Nicole Smith: “Made some bad choices, then made worse choices, then ran out of choices.” it seems the same can be said, sadly, of the City Opera. To be present, unhappily, in the midst of an historic moment in the cultural times of NewYork, was a sobering experience.

Just what does this tell us of the state of the New York music scene when this great city can only support one opera house, when most of the important, and some less important cities of Europe, boast of at least two, some more? I won’t hazard a suggestion. (Living in a glass house like Australia, what can I say?) The financial scandal been revealed at present, concerning the financial management of this company, may  reflect the onerous developments of the American economy as a whole, in the present frightening “fiscal cliff” that is enveloping Washington  – the possible demise of a world power that will, if true, shake and re-order the world, dramatically. Let us hope that the collapse of the New York City Opera is not a symptom of a much bigger problem.

It was great to hear this contemporary work. The Metropolitan Opera will present a new work, TWO BOYS, music by Nico Muhly, libretto by Craig Lucas, directed by Bartlett Sher (SOUTH PACIFIC), conducted by David Robertson (the recently appointed Chief Conductor and Music Advisor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, beginning in 2014). as a joint project with the English National Opera, later in the season: October 21st. Maybe with the new Sydney connection we may come to hear this work in due time. Certainly, the ANNA NICOLE would be a work of interest, too, would it not? I, for one, would like to see it again.