Anna Nicole the opera – a BRAvura performance
As I took my seat for the very first public preview of ‘Anna Nicole’, I noticed something was different in the Royal Opera House. In place of the usual lion and unicorn on the stage curtain there were two bikini-clad body builders. And the Royal shield had been replaced with a laughing picture of the opera’s eponymous character – Anna Nicole Smith. Usually red with gold embroidery, the curtains were now pink with a border of pouting lips. She would have loved this, I thought.
On Saturday morning, the ROH allowed a small audience – mostly students –in for a rehearsal/run-through of their much-talked-about new work. With music from Mark-Anthony Turnage – who passes for a bad boy, as classical composers go – and a libretto from Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer the Opera fame), Anna Nicole was never going to be a low-key affair. And unsurprisingly the press have loved the story so far – playboy model, billionaire’s wife, drug addict…opera.
The singer tasked with bringing this unorthodox life to the stage is Eva-Maria Westbroek. And she is brilliant. She has nailed the Texas drawl (nice is “nahce”; life, “lahfe”) and manages to make Anna silly but sympathetic. The first time we see her she is reclining in a giant gold armchair. She leans forward and whisper-sings the words “I wanna blow you all…I wanna blow you all…a kiss.” Which sets the tone for what follows.
Richard Thomas’ libretto is shocking – as you might expect from one of the creators of Jerry Springer the Opera – but it is also very funny and moving in places. This is a nice clean, family blog, so I’m not going to repeat the x-rated phrases, but suffice it to say that I was shocked – and I’ve studied 17th-century pornography. One aria sung by Anna is entirely made up of different words for breasts. And just when you think Thomas has exhausted the possibilities, another ten ring out in Westbroek’s rich soprano before declaring to her plastic surgeon “Supersize me!”
Everything about this production is over the top – but it had to be. How else could a stage show have hoped to recreate Anna Nicole Smith’s firework of a life? She came from the poorest of the poor, married one of the richest men in the world, had ENORMOUS breasts and died young of a drugs overdose. Subtlety is not what is called for.
But you never feel that the opera is laughing at her. Yes, she’s a bit dippy, yes, she clearly married for money. But Turnage and Thomas make Anna Nicole into a resourceful woman: not proud of her life choices, but not seeing any alternatives. As she sings: “I made some bad choices, some worse choices and then ran outta choices”. She is more a victim of circumstance than anything more sinister.
The baddy, in this version of the tale (and as the characters keep stressing, this is only one version), is her lawyer, Stern, played without lazy caricature by Gerald Finley. The entire cast are excellent (and this was only a rehearsal!) but Alan Oke as Anna Nicole’s billionaire husband, J Howard Marshall II, is particularly funny. His entrance is one of the production’s stand-out moments (I won’t spoil it…)
Most importantly though, there is nothing mawkish or voyeuristic about Turnage’s opera. It doesn’t feel like wealthy, opera-goers gawping at a young woman’s car crash life – which it could so easily have been. Instead, we get a wry, witty look at the lure of money, fame and the American dream. Sure, it’s rude – the lap dancers redefine the term flexible and the f word is splattered like [rude simile censored] across the score. But Turnage and Thomas have created an opera which takes a hard look at greed, morality, poverty and ambition – Anna Nicole’s life is just the vehicle.