An opera on the life of Anna Nicole Smith? Really? Well, why not? When you stop to think about all the heroines from Mimi in "La Boheme" to Violetta in "La Traviata" and the title role in "Carmen," the grand opera stage is littered with stories of bad girls who made questionable choices before heaving a final "money note" over the swells of an orchestra on the way to the hereafter. And while the recent nature of events that encompass Richard Thomas' profanity-laced libretto and less accessible 20/21st century tones of Mark-Anthony Turnage's complex score may scare off many traditionalists, it is those same attributes that will usher in a new generation of opera buff.
"Anna Nicole" opens with a full chorus of blonde news reporters clad in semi-identical blue suits. The men all in Sam Champion-like wigs, the women all coiffed in high Texas hair. Our "choruspondents" take us to the small Texas town of Mexia (pronounced Mu-hay-ya), whose motto is "a great place to live however you pronounce it." It is here that we meet our heroine and her family, which includes her hard-faced mother, absent father, doting and dimwitted aunt and dentally challenged meth-addicted cousin. In a WalMart smock with baby in tow, it is clear that Anna Nicole has to get out of Mexia.
The rest of the evening is familiar to anyone even remotely acquainted with Anna Nicole Smith's story.
After enthusiastic plastic surgery, Anna meets billionaire oil magnate octogenarian J. Howard Marshall II who marries her and promptly dies. Smith's once curvaceous figure becomes a zaftig disaster zone as her attorney and third husband Howard Stern keeps her and presumably her young son, drugged into walking comas as they usher in an era of reality television aimed at documenting the lives of "semi-lebrities." After Anna gives birth to her daughter Dannielynn, her son Daniel dies of an accidental overdose. Anna follows suit, shortly thereafter.
During the Act One finale, Anna sings "I'm gonna rape the American dream." An apropos lyric for events that happened prior to and will happen later in the life of our heroine.
In the title role, beautiful soprano Sarah Joy Miller physically embodies Smith's persona (with the help of prosthetics and a second act fat suit). Although the acoustics of the Gilman Opera House are not always kind to her, vocally, she maneuvers composer Turnage's Wagnerian vocal lines with aplomb. Acting demands being paramount for this role, Miller deftly communicates the paradox of her character's cunning and naivety, while conveying an underlying sense of pathos, longing and loneliness necessary for the audience to sympathize with her plight despite the self-serving choices that brought upon her end.
As her mother Virgie, in her municipal officer uniform, mezzo-soprano Susan Bickley delivers the most heart-rending performance of the evening. Hateful, yet caring, Virgie is the evening's wet blanket and well needed dose of reality. Singing the line "In the east it's the burka, in the west it's a thong," Bickley's character crudely rips away the thin veil of Anna's supposed empowerment to reveal the slavery it truly is. Equally affecting is baritone Rod Gilfry's hissable turn as Anna's parasitic third husband and lawyer Howard Stern. But it is the vocal brilliance and twistedly bold dramatic choices of tenor Robert Brubaker in the role of J. Howard Marshall II that earns him highest praise for the evening.
Musically, composer Mark-Anthony Turnage's score is a hodgepodge of serious American music from the 20th century, most notably Leonard Bernstein, whose "A Quiet Place" which was recently presented by NYCO, feels ever present throughout the evening. Although possessing far less satisfying vocal lines than Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking," another English language opera based on a true American story, Turnage's score never ceases to serve the material's drama to maximum effect. Hints of Aaron Copeland, orchestrated in the lower brass during Anna's final lament "Oh America" remind the audience that although "Anna Nicole"'s composer may be English by birth, the subject matter is decidedly American.
The libretto by Richard Thomas, best known for his "Jerry Springer, the Opera" is as profound as it is profane. Establishing Anna in her first lyric, Thomas has our heroine sing "I want to blow you all... a kiss." Later in the evening, the chorus advises Anna "you need to get some tits" and J. Howard Marshall brags that he will "grow old with dis Grace." While Thomas is clearly having fun with his subject matter, he steers clear of making fun of Anna and maintains a semblance of integrity to the choices that largely brought on her untimely end.
Conceived by British theater director Richard Jones, the background and ensemble tell as much of the story as the title character herself. Using the opera chorus in the first act as news reporters, they one by one turn into full body giant walking film and video cameras in the second act. Set designer Miriam Buether provides the stage with a giant mattress in the second act as a metaphor for how Anna's most intimate moments were thrown onto a world stage. The act curtain, a pastiche of Covent Garden's iconic red velvet curtain is now hot pink accented with gold lame lips, palm trees and "AnR" replacing "EIIR."
Although the evening often has the feel of a musical, Turnage and Thomas skillfully keep the story in the realm of their chosen medium -- opera. Bearing an uncanny resemblance to Rossini's "La Cenerentola" (Cinderella), "Anna Nicole"'s composer and librettist's best nod to the highbrow art form occurs in latter part of the second act when Anna's son, who up until his death had been a non-singing character, sings the names of numerous addictive prescription pharmaceuticals, while dead in his body bag. Musically and dramatically, the event is reminiscent of the child in Berg's "Wozzeck" on his hobbyhorse singing "klip klop," oblivious to his parents' deaths.
"Anna Nicole" runs through Sept. 28 at the Peter Jay Sharp Building at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Avenue
in Brooklyn. For information or tickets, call 718-636-4100 x1 or visit http://www.bam.org/opera/2013/anna-nicole