Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, N.Y.; September 17, 2013—When, a few years ago, England’s Covent Garden commissioned composer Mark-Anthony Turnage to write an opera on the life of the tabloid TV reality show star, sex-symbol, fortune-hunting, drug-addicted, huge-breast implanted Playboy Playmate Anna Nicole Smith , the entire project was met with snarky derision—“how else can they drag people into the opera house?” And, indeed, when the work was premiered in February, 2011, every performance sold out—the plan worked.
The surprise is that it is a marvelously entertaining opera (a DVD of it has been available for some time). The brilliant libretto, by Richard Thomas, captures a type of American white-trash vernacular that is absolutely real (despite it being written in couplets—i.e: “They make me feel like a failure/I’m going back to my trailer”) and is filled with everyday speech patterns and whopping good profanity. Anna Nicole’s opening and closing words are “I want to blow you all [pause for effect]…a kiss.” The libretto also expresses both pathos and mockery for the drug-addled, eventually hideously overweight Bimbo who died at 39 from a deadly combination of drugs, after having watched her son die of the same thing. Throughout the opera we laugh at her and her exploits (and her exploiters), but we’re eventually moved by her plight. She sings, at one point, “I want to rape the American dream.” What her concept of it was—celebrity at any cost—does far more damage to her.
Turnage’s music is filled with jazz, Texas honky-tonk, musical theater, and what we know as “classical” idioms; there’s a lovely/ironic waltz-like number later in the opera that Anna sings in praise of junk food. Though the irony is nasty, the music is effective. There’s nothing fraudulent or “plugged in” about the score; it seems organic to the story. When Anna sings of her dreams, alone, early on, the combination of the Southern drawl and orchestration are redolent of nothing less than Carlyle Floyd’s Susannah; when she arrives in the big city—the “city of joy”—which turns out to be Houston (she’s from Mexia, Texas—a riotous fuss is made over the pronunciation of the town’s name), the chorus, stage front, sounds for all the world like the folks in Weill’s Mahagonny. Turnage makes references but he certainly has his own voice.
Happily, the for-the-moment hapless New York City Opera has brought Covent Garden’s original production of Anna Nicole to BAM for a brief run, and those lucky enough to catch it will rave about it. Richard Jones’ direction on Miriam Buether’s sets is funny and busy, but knows when to stop for touching, emotionally telling moments. The shocking pink curtain rises on dozens of reporters with microphones, stage front, the men in gray suits, the women in powder blue, shouting Anna Nicole’s name—they remain present, either in groups or individually, throughout the opera. They part to show Anna, scantily clad, sitting on a golden throne. Scenes change from her home town of “Mu-Hay-ah”, where she meets her first husband in a fried chicken restaurant, has his child, and then splits for Houston, leaving the baby to be cared for by her foul-mouthed, disapproving mother Virgie, dressed as a security guard.
She gets work in a vile, neon-filled “Gentlemen’s Club” but she has a problem: her breasts are too small. At the advice of the other, magnificently sleazy pole dancers, she goes to a plastic surgeon (dressed in pink and green, and a fast talker, surrounded by a bevy of busty nurses), who convinces her that bigger is better and that the only side effects will be terrible back pain, for which he prescribes pain killers that she will “have to take for the rest of her life.”
So begins the ascent and descent: she meets billionaire J. Howard Marshall II, 63 years her senior, and he falls for her, particularly after an on-stage blow job, delicately shielded by gawking reporters (bravo Mr Jones) while the orgasm-reaching music explains everything. The first act ends with their wedding—Buether’s sets, incredibly vulgar and funny, outdo themselves here, with a gigantic roll-on cart of two heart-shaped arrangements of white flowers, onto which Marshall has to be carried. And so it continues, with fame, a disastrous interview on “Larry King Live” during which the by-then fat Anna blathers and crawls around on the floor, drawing to its inevitable conclusion. The addition of black-tights-clad characters with TV cameras as heads that follow her around, adds an even sharper note of grotesquerie.
The performances could not have been better, with a few members of the cast drawn from musical theater. The slim, blond, good-looking Sarah Joy Miller, who has Violetta and Gilda on her resumé, was a perfect Anna, lithe, perky, trashy, seemingly oblivious at times, unable to edit her own stupidity. The vocal line varies from conversational to lyrical to coloratura outbursts, and Miller has it all and is, quite simply, good to listen to. It’s a very brave performance.
As her mother, Virgie, the superb British mezzo Susan Bickley was funny, bitchy, easy-to-understand, and sang with assured, big tone. Rod Gilfry, fresh from a run of Don Giovannis at Aix-en-Provence, was a tough, shrewd Howard K. Stern, Anna’s lawyer, advisor, and lover—and, as the chorus sings, her “Svengali, Beelzebub, and Yoko Ono.” The part is under-explained but Gilfry did well with it. Robert Brubaker’s turn as the decrepit 89-year-old Marshall (who drops dead wearing a gold lame suit at a cocaine-filled party) was marvelous, his character-tenor bright and clear, and another tenor, Richard Troxell, made a terrifically sleazy breast surgeon, Dr. Yes. Anna’s young son is silent throughout, but as he grows into teenaged years and dies, the role is taken by Broadway performer Nicholas Barasch, who sings, after his death and in a body bag, the list of drugs that have killed him, from Adderal to Zoloft, with stops in between for Methadone.
Steven Sloane conducts the 60-piece orchestra with brilliance and verve; the playing is spot-on. The chorus and all of the minor players are excellent—and apparently are having a great time. So will you. The opera runs through September 28. Race to BAM—if you can get a ticket.