By Mary Grace Nguyen
Women play a significant role in opera; world renowned characters such as Bizet’s Carmen and Verdi’s Violetta are part of the endless list of opera heroines, and despite their social ranking as gypsy girl or courtesan, their operas have been performed throughout ever since their première in the 18th century. Yet, at first, these operas received adversary as they were considered sensational; audiences preferred mythology and tales of the classical period compared to depictions of contemporary life and today, some operagoers still favour this.
This season’s opening night at the Royal Opera House (ROH) was dedicated to students and under-25s for their second presentation of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s modern day opera of the breast pumped TV personality, Anna Nicole Smith. With rampant scenes of strip clubs, in-your-face foul language, American accents and ‘white-trash’ paraphernalia including musclemen, class-A smack, junk food and double F tits, this over indulgent opera will irrefutably raise a few eyebrows.
Anna Nicole belongs on the stage with the great opera heroines as she too lived a desperate life. She married an oil tycoon 63 years her senior and resorted to parading her trashy lifestyle on reality TV when things didn’t go her way. After severe weight gain, the death of her son and enduring back pains caused by her silicon breasts – claimed to be the same amount of liquid contained in a bottle of wine in each breast – she died of an overdose in 2007.
In recent times, celebrity life has become a popular genre due to reality TV and Anna Nicole Smith was one of the many iconic fallen women who were sucked into the ‘American dream’ and the misguided illusions of sex and glamour. This is portrayed in Richard Jones’ bold and large stage brimming with fluorescent colours and neon lighting. Blaring trumpets and pounding percussion drums go wild as fake-breasted pole dancers open their legs to the audience. Antonio Pappano brazenly conducts the drum rolls as Anna suggestively gives her octogenarian husband a blowjob which later leads onto Anna being psychologically assaulted by six large camera heads on the Larry King Show (Peter Hoare) as if she was on Big Brother.
Director of the ROH, Kasper Holten told me just before act two ‘… it all goes down hill as operas do’, which is where the spectacular, tragic and operatic music slowly ebbs in and includes a ballad sung for the dead son, Daniel (Jason Broderick). Dutch soprano, Eva-Maria Westbroek reprised her role as Anna from its première in 2011, who had coincidently sung as the gold-digger, Manon Lescaut in Baden-Baden, which made her the ideal for the part. Westbroek’s Anna was the vocal starlet which the audience abhorred and eventually pitied. Her willingness to push the boundaries, and even make hideous ‘rock out’ faces were respected much like Roy Gilfry who supported Anna as Stern, her lawyer who charmed the auditorium with his baritone timbre.
Special mention goes out to Susan Bickley as Anna’s estranged mother who was explicit, sung ‘Fuck you’ and never failed to deliver the grittier life of Anna, whilst shaking Alan Oke as Old man Marshall brought wit and humour to this ironic tale. Andrew Rees was also impressive with his tenor vocal charisma reinforcing the need for Anna to get larger boobies as Doctor Yes.
It should be warned that Richard Thomas’ libretto might not be to everyone’s taste, yet in 200 years time who knows what people will say about it. Perhaps it is disliked because of the language usage or excessive profanities, yet we need to refer back to the deeper implications of reality TV. They succeed because the masses empathise with their celebrities and both Thomas and Turnage were undoubtedly mindful of this notion of putting a grimmer TV reality onto the operatic stage.
Turnage is a classic zig-zagger of genres, adding Latin chorus, jazz, blues, swing and moving tragic symphonies in act 2. ‘Anna, Anna, Anna Nicole’ is a memorable number and with the opera’s smooth, connective storyline, one could easily view it a flamboyant musical with strong operatic voices. [To buy tickets, please go to the ROH website.]