Anna-Nicole: The Opera – ‘Absurdly Beautiful and Eccentric’

Premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London in February 2011.

In the preamble to the broadcast performance of 25th March, 2011 on BBC4, the commentator and critics offer some of the following as considerations of the production and Anna Nicole Smith’s life brought to the stage:

“Absurdly beautiful and eccentric.”

“The search for love and impact of celebrity.”

“Makes us question our role in her downfall.”

The performance opens on a sober-suited chorus of men and women against a temple-like structure that proves to be, as the lights come up, the side of a rundown property in her hometown of Mexia, Texas: “Known across the globe for her perky peccadilloes and her silicon titties.” Anna Nicole’s first appearance is on an oozing, voluptuous, golden button-backed throne. She is buxom and delicious in her earliest phase of waitress and Marilyn wannabe. Her first line: “I wanna blow you all – blow you all – a kiss!” elicited laughter from the audience. The chorus sing: “Oh Anna-Nicole, Anna-Nicole from the Lone Star State, you didn’t deserve your terrible fate.” They call her hometown “MeXia” – only to be corrected by the Mayor: “No – Mu – HAY – uh!’”

The chorus provide a memento mori throughout; acting in various guises as journalists, interviewers, lawyers, audience, partygoers, etc. In the first act there is mostly exposition and reportage. The characters describe and debate. It is Greek tragedy, not Italian grand opera, based on the inevitability of her fate; we all know it, we are here to watch it played out. It’s representational and narrative at this point rather than gradually working with the characters that are established in her life. Virgie, her mother, is an ever-present force, a commentator, judge, moralist, dressed in her sheriff’s uniform. Anna-Nicole is central, and surrounded by the types and archetypes that populated her experience and inhabit this biography. As well as her mother there are the family members, already wishing to exploit her and live off her. This first act, of two, features the struggle with the past, Anna-Nicole’s desire to rid herself of her previous persona. The discordant music frames the discord and disparity between “facts, fact, facts” as perceptions of the past, and Anna’s desire to re-write her identity. She claims things happened one way, and her mother refutes it. The tone is mocking and the cornerstone of the piece is vulgarity.

The thumping refrain is heard throughout the performance at regular intervals: “Anna, Anna, Anna-Nicole.” It’s epic in its proportions and scale. And speedy, Anna marries Billy Bob and POP! her first child, Daniel, appears. Hick, ponderous line dance music is referenced as the cast dances in their fast-food uniforms. As this illustration of her past is highlighted “The lawyer, Stern!” makes his first of many arrivals. This anachronistic appearance is pointed out, as the chorus hiss out: “Diavolo, Beelzebub!” He replies that he is: “Just lookin’ out for your interests.”

A huge Walmart banner descends as Anna “escapes” to Houston, “the city of low wage”. The action is both surreal and pantomimic at this point as masked corporate minions attempt to march her onwards at their pace accompanied by the dirge-like: “Walmart – waitress – low wage.” The way is clear for her to start dancing, and suddenly the backdrop flies up to reveal a stage populated by exuberant, athletic, Offenbach-like seediness in the ‘Gentlemen’s Club’ where she finds employment. The club’s pole dancers and lap dancers are acrobats, with huge, inflated bosoms in a dim, vulgar underworld, launching themselves into gravity defying poses and snaking towards the clientele: “Look, but don’t touch!” Anna is the clumsy girl in the beginning, naïve and unable to make money. Her coming of age takes place in the club. The entire chorus chant: “You need to get SOME TITS!”

Stern the Lawyer appears once again, to further chanting of: “Sauron of Mordor, Slayer of Bambi’s mother, Darth Vader!” “Anything else?” he queries. “Yoko Ono!” accompanied by laughter from the audience. Then Anna encounters the chorus of the “breastless masses” at the clinic of plastic surgeon, Dr. Yes. The regime and routine of surgery and dependence on painkillers are depicted as her new existence, to the chanting of dozens of different slang names for breasts. Then, her new inflated, grotesque figure is revealed as she entwines herself around a pole in the club and sings a surprisingly plaintive, melancholic, lyrical aria: “You need a little luck, girls.” This scene climaxes with the arrival of J Howard Marshall, descending on a giant invalid stairlift chair: ready to “grow old with disgrace”. Anna’s distended, monstrous figure is precisely what appeals to him; she poses and bounces for him. Then, in front of a case full of vast plastic Disney-style woodland animals she seduces him with her “little baby voice”, and she, Marshall and the boy Daniel form their bizarre family.

She pursues her “American dream” relentlessly and savagely – supplied with pills brought to her by her young son. Virgie provides the only voice of sanity, making her regular interjections, whilst “Stern the Lawyer” hovers close by. A frozen tableau at the end of the act, underneath their heart-shaped wedding bower, depicts Marshall, Anna and Daniel surrounded by the press and cameras. Different styles of music and musical referencing characterise Turnage’s approach to composition for this piece; at times including Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones on stage as part of the ‘house band’ and in the orchestra pit, to bring the right sort of accompaniment to the score. Turnage includes the ‘jazz and pop idiom’ but seeks to include many genres, such as television themes by Lalo Schifrin and others, inspiring a complexity of structure and making great demands on the cast.

Act two opens on the sight of a mattress, of vast size, flopped on the floor and part of the way up the back wall. Anna now has celebrity and a husband but the drama and tragedy begin to take hold as her life is shown to unravel. Laughter is prompted from the audience at this reveal of Marshall and Anna crawling from their gargantuan marital bed. She pops more pills as she is decked in a cerise Monroesque gown, and sings for Marshall’s delectation: “Jimmy Choo shoe on a red carpet … oo –oo – oo Jimmy Choo!” The score and the lyrics quote Fame – The Musical: “I’m gonna live forever, I’m gonna learn how to fly – high!” and segue into a foreboding Icarus reference, “flew too high!”

Stern the Lawyer is there once more, during the Playboy, hard partying years. Bagfuls of cocaine are strewn across the stage (be mindful – this is the Royal Opera House!) Marshall staggers around in a gold lamé tracksuit, and then succumbs to a stroke. His palsy-wracked body resists the ministrations of the ‘doctors’ of the chorus: “Not dead yet”, lingering. Anna is the agitated little girl, albeit on drugs, plucking at her skirts as they try to resuscitate her husband – in her version. But then the Marshall family iterate theirs: “You tried to suffocate him with those massive tits … and then you fucked the masseuse!”

Stern the Lawyer comes in to his own to represent her in her now epic lawsuit against the family: “Beat them like a piñata, and watch the money fall out!” The years roll by with Stern by her side and the depiction of Anna changes; from the voluptuous to the heavy, drugged phase of her reality TV fiascos and desperate public appearances. Stern and the teenage Daniel are her suppliers and ‘handlers’ as she tries to maintain her Playmate pin-up image. Then she grapples with Stern for her pills. The excellent Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna lolls in a fatsuit, a sequinned dress stretched across gargantuan boobs, guzzling pills as she prepares to answer questions on Larry King Live. The lights go up on the set for her now notorious interview. The quirky, tragic burlesque of this scene, linking live to her dogs (four enormous model nodding dogs to whom she wails) exhibits the inflated, grotesque world in which she lived that is now out of control, certainly for her but for Stern as well. From the struggle of the first act we now reach the downfall.

Stern iterates Anna’s exploits: her drugged-up exhibitionism and embarrassing slurred interviews, showing him to be her manipulator and Svengali. Daniel, throughout these scenes is almost mute: a watcher, supplier, comforter. The excesses and mania grow more huge still. Once she announces her pregnancy a giant fridge is wheeled on and she pigs out on masses of junk food whilst lounging on zebra-skin chairs with Daniel, she sings out her list of foods. Stern plans for the birth to be a pay-per-view internet event. Black cat-suited camera-people have been following her around during this act, peering and skulking into every corner of her life. She cringes and hollers as she ‘rehearses’ the pain of her forthcoming childbirth scene. Her mother appears once more to narrate the scene of Daniel’s death in the hospital: “Get in the chair”; she positions them around the set. Stern: “I was asleep”, Virgie: “Yes, we heard!”

She sings the autopsy findings out to Stern, “Who gave him the drugs?” The onset of Anna’s final madness is punctuated by the arguments of Stern and Virgie, now disputing the possession of Daniel’s death and Anna’s grief. The photographing of Daniel’s body in the hospital is re-enacted. Then his corpse raises its head from the body bag and sings a blues inspired refrain listing the illegal and prescription drugs he was supposed to have taken. The first sound he makes is from inside his own body bag. Then, Anna is off on the ‘TrimSpa’ regime of laxatives and appetite suppressants as she grieves for her son in front of the unfeeling, faceless cameras whilst she sits on a giant lavatory. The chorus of lawyers and press rake through her giant garbage bins once she has screamed at Stern: ‘The baby’s not yours!’ She guzzles more drugs as she is laid on an unzipped body bag, her death anticipated. Virgie sings: “Pray it doesn’t happen to you! … My flesh, my blood, my embarrassment!”

“I guess I kinda blew it,” Anna sings as she goes to be with Daniel, “Oh, America, you dirty whore, I gave you everything, you wanted more.” The camera-people descend on her like Faustus’ devils, or the finale of the damnation of Don Giovanni. They close in on her and one of them zips up the body bag to a final black-out and then a last burst of strobe/camera-flash. This offers the conclusion of the tragedy, checking the final box. Anna might be, as Turnage and others have described her since the commissioning of the piece, in the tradition of Violetta, Carmen, and Madame Butterfly, but she was also real and she is now dead, along with her son. It is a frightful carnival, but the depth of characterisation is absent. The real and imagined figures parade for the audience, fleeting from one episode to the next without much depth or development. It is a fast-paced, kitsch and edgy work, however, with so much going on musically and so much vulgarity and garishness that it cannot fail to be entertaining.