It isn’t often that you can say you’ve seen an opera not only of but about our times. But Anna Nicole – which I saw Thursday night at the Royal Opera House in London – is such a work. The music is by Mark Anthony Turnage, the libretto by Richard Thomas. It sets off by causing the audience to laugh out loud repeatedly, but grows darker until the whole thing turns on the audience and indeed on our times.
The story of the small-town girl turned billionaire widow is probably familiar to most people. Anna Nicole Smith married early, had a kid, divorced, got out of town, joined a strip-bar, had a boob job, met an octogenarian oil billionaire, married him, outlived him, fought for his money in the courts with a lawyer she married next and then – having become a basket-case drug addict and celebrity in the meantime – also outlived her own son. Then she died.
Our critic in the magazine this week suggests that the opera never persuades us why what he rightly calls the ‘absurd life’ of Anna Nicole Smith is ‘worth our time’. I think it is about the best subject for a new opera I have seen. Not that it isn’t brash, vulgar and rude. The chorus ‘You’ve got to get some tits’ stood out in this regard. As did the blowjob scene. But none of it is done for effect. I would defy anyone not to be moved after the latter scene, when Anna Nicole greets her young son and says she’s got them the ranch she believes she needs to have some security.
Eva-Marie Westbroek as Anna gives an amazing performance though it is sometimes hard to hear all the words, and it is a shame as ever when an opera in English not only has, but needs, English surtitles. The libretto has weak and occasionally predictable patches, but the score is extraordinary. Fans of Turnage’s earlier music may find the musical style of parts of the score disappointing, but I thought it all just sounded as if he was having the most terrific time with the orchestra. Compared to his slightly too portentous previous full opera – The Silver Tassie – this score sounded like Turnage knew he doesn’t have to prove anything. It uses pastiche in the early stages in particular with incredible virtuosity. And the writing is beautifully lyrical. Anna Nicole’s strip-joint aria after she’s got her new boobs and thus the attention she wants is particularly moving (‘You need a little luck girl’). As things turn darker the more familiar Turnage sound comes in – the interlude in act two in particular – and does everything that his immediately recognisable dark sound-world can do.
But what makes Anna Nicole stand out as almost a masterwork in my view is not just the score but the subject matter. From the very beginning the opera acts as a modern morality tale. It’s never heartless, but it dispatches with all non-essential elements from the outset. And then there is the truly damning insight. The chorus acts throughout not just as a Greek chorus commenting on the tale, but as the media. They carry microphones which they hold under Anna and her family for the whole work. By the second act dancers got up as huge cameras start to congregate. A couple at first, but by the end the stage is flooded with them. One camera dancer spends a whole scene focussed on the cot of her new baby – a great cash-cow as her last husband sees it. By the end the cameras are everywhere. As the body-bags mount so do the cameras. At the end it is a camera dancer which zips up Anna’s bodybag. She dies, surrounded by drugs and by then the garbage cans kicked over with a garbage strewn stage. I don’t think anybody who has seen it live will forget the impact of that last scene as she sings her last lines, gets zipped up and then the music stops. For a few moments the camera-dancers stay on stage, still focussing on and sifting through the trash-can detritus of her life all over the stage.
You can see where this is going, and perhaps it sounds too easy on the page. But it isn’t in performance. It is a modern morality tale in the proper sense. It doesn’t point the finger just at certain players in the drama – indeed it gives them each a voice to persuade us that what they did they did not because they were necessarily bad but because it was all they thought they could do with the options they had. I came away thinking the life of Anna Nicole in Turnage’s version was not just worth our time but something everybody should see. Few artists today would dare to create such a work. It is a work in the tradition of The Rake’s Progress and indeed The Pilgrim’s Progress. It is about our times, and the cruelty of a culture which expects the right to know, and indeed demands to know everything and then believes it can absolve itself from any responsibility for the car crashes it creates. Not that this opera lets the protagonists off. At the very end as she’s in her body-bag Anna Nicole sings a song against the society that made her: ‘I gave you all I had. You wanted more’. Too pat, you think, too easy. And you’d be right. The composer and librettist know it too. Self-correcting she adds, ‘I wanted more’.