Richard Thomas
Richard Thomas
(Photo courtesy of the production)
Richard Thomas, the British opera composer and librettist, burst onto the theatrical scene in 2004 with his controversial Jerry Springer: The Opera, a sung-through musical comedy about the tabloid talk-show host, complete with adults who dress like babies, tap-dancing KKK members, and a sojourn into hell, led by Satan himself. Naturally it received critical acclaim, winning several Olivier Awards, and later playing a brief engagement at Carnegie Hall with Harvey Keitel in the title role.

Thomas has returned to New York this week for the American premiere of Anna Nicole, an opera written with Mark-Anthony Turnage about the life and death of legendary tabloid star Anna Nicole Smith. Premiering in 2011 at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden to similar acclaim, the work opens Brooklyn Academy of Music's 2013 Next Wave Festival in a coproduction at the Gilman Opera House with New York City Opera.

On a break from rehearsals, Thomas chatted with TheaterMania about why Anna Nicole Smith is a perfect subject for an opera, how the opera vets and Broadway stars in the company blend, and how opera itself is at risk of becoming "cozy and complacent."

Sarah Joy Miller as Anna Nicole Smith
Sarah Joy Miller as Anna Nicole Smith
(© Pari Dukovic)

Anna Nicole Smith seems like the perfect operatic heroine.
Absolutely. It's like a gift, isn't it? What I admire about her is that she is so ridiculously famous — globally famous — though having very little discernible skill. She's got a pure talent for pure fame. That's what was fascinating. If you're going to write a show about the cult of celebrity and the desire or yearning for fame, that's the classic character. She was a global phenomenon. It's hard to think of anything else like that who exists. People say to me, "What about the Kardashians?" Nobody knows who they are in Sweden. When Anna Nicole died, it was global news. It was on 24/7.

How did this piece come to fruition?
The Royal Opera House commissioned Mark-Anthony Turnage, the composer, to do an opera… They wanted something that could be lighthearted, that could have a comedic side to it. And he gave me a call and asked if I would do the libretto. He very smartly called me. [laughs] I wasn't that fussed about a commission. I never grew up with a picture of the Royal Opera House on my wall, so to speak. I had bought an Anna Nicole Smith biography, I don't know why. I called Mark and on the same day, he had the same idea, given to him by his wife. It was irresistible. That subject matter on stage at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, sort of the symbol of total opera elite and establishment? We went for it.

You didn't know much about her before you started?
Nothing at all. I hadn't really given it a thought. There are about three and a half biographies on her. I read them all and trolled the internet and got the TV series The Anna Nicole Show. I watched it initially and said, "Sh*t, I don't really like this character. She needs to be likable." Then I read more, and I went over to L.A. and interviewed some people who she used to hang out with. The big eureka moment was realizing that nobody in England really knew her story. She was trailer-trash-turned-hooker who married a billionaire. Her mother was a law enforcement officer. [Anna Nicole] actually made her own money before meeting the billionaire. The problems started when the billionaire died and she went into a ten-year legal battle with the family. That's kind of it for her. Then, her son died in her bed.

There's your opera.
A really great plot point was finding things like [the fact that] the lawyer negotiated a deal for a million dollars for the exclusive rights to film the cesarean section of her having her daughter. It's brilliant. It's genius. People go, "Oh, that's disgusting," and I go, "Not really." That's what she had to sell. She wasn't a great actress. The modeling went out the window. She was selling her life and her essence. She was walking fame.

When the work premiered in 2011, was New York ever in the equation?
Never. It's a ridiculously fabulous bonus. [The Royal Opera House] couldn't get anybody to co-commission it because everyone was going, "What, really?" Especially Americans. You must know this: American opera companies are so risk-averse it defies belief. It's a shame for the art form. It's in danger of becoming a cozy, complacent museum. I sometimes think opera is like the Crown Jewels. They're present but they're totally irrelevant. A lot of tourists go to them and they exist, but they're meaningless. I've been in London 35 years and I've never seen the Crown Jewels.

The cast you've assembled here blends veteran Broadway performers like James Barbour and Mary Testa with rising opera stars like Sarah Joy Miller and Rod Gilfrey. Was that a conscious choice on the part of the creative team?
When we came to America, the director, Richard Jones, and I said it would be great to get some Broadway people in. I remember when I did the Jerry Springer opera at Carnegie Hall, I was amazed by the talent and amazed that these Broadway folk had operatic chops. That worked really well. Often, it feels tacked on, but somehow it really worked. I told Mark-Anthony, you're writing an opera, but I'm writing a musical, and we're going to put it in that atomic collider and send them in opposing directions and see what happens when they smash together.

In the past few weeks, I've seen a lot of advertisements on the subway for Anna Nicole. Inevitably, I hear people thinking that the show is parody or making fun of her. What do you say to that?
I totally, utterly, profoundly disagree on every level imaginable. I would ask them to point to any sentence that willfully mocks her. If I thought it did, I would withdraw the libretto, because what kind of individual would that make me, who would point the finger and go "Ha, ha, ha, look at you, you're a piece of sh*t?" From the minute she opens her mouth on stage, you feel for her.

So how would you sum up the story?
Anna Nicole is a funny tragedy about a single mom doing the best for her kid.