"I want to rape the American Dream," Anna Nicole Smith defiantly blares at the audience as she shows off her big fake breasts and winning smile. And rape she does, but what goes around comes around in Anna Nicole, now making its American premiere with the New York City Opera at BAM. This Mark-Anthony Turnage (composer) and Richard Thomas (librettist) collaboration was originally commissioned by London's Royal Opera House Covent Garden, where it premiered in 2011. A beautiful and ill-fated courtesan, Anna Nicole is a pretty standard operatic heroine. Yet Anna Nicole is so much more than the story of one woman. Sensitively written and formally daring, it is a quintessential tale of the American Dream, from glorious ascendancy through tragic downfall — and all the disgraceful moments in between.
Most everyone is familiar with Anna Nicole Smith (played here by Sarah Joy Miller), the Playboy Playmate of the Year who rose to international fame when she married octogenarian billionaire J. Howard Marshall II (Robert Brubaker) just 13 months before his death. Her celebrity was solidified by a series of intoxicated public appearances and a reality TV show (when the genre was still in its nascency). Anna Nicole eschews those already well-documented chapters of Smith's life in favor of her more private moments as imagined by Thomas (Jerry Springer: The Opera).
Starting with a brief primer on Smith's childhood in Mexia, Texas, Anna Nicole quickly proceeds through her first marriage to Billy Boy (Ben Davis), her divorce and relocation to Houston, her career as an exotic dancer, and her decision to buy breast implants, all leading up to her fateful meeting with Marshall. If the opera ended after the first act, it would be a perfect comedic tribute to American pluck, complete with a wedding (albeit a May-December one).
But it doesn't end there. The triumphal brass of Marshall's courtship with Smith — the moment he presents her with jewelry is truly breathtaking — cedes to uncertain woodwinds that flutter with increasing alarm, like exotic birds trapped in a cage on a sinking ship. Turnage's tonally complex score glides seamlessly through major and minor strains, mirroring the hidden pitfalls of fame that lead Smith to a series of very bad choices. That which raises her up (her larger-than-life breasts and personality) also brings her down in the form of prescription pain killers (for her back) and a voracious press.
"Ohohohohoh," wails the buxom blonde like a modern-day Valkyrie, but instead of Teutonic knights, she's calling Valium to rest in the Valhalla of her stomach, fortifying her for an appearance on Larry King Live. Her addiction to pills, fame, and food is enabled by her lawyer/confidant Howard K. Stern. He is vilified by the press, but made somewhat sympathetic through a nuanced performance by Rod Gilfry.
Despite her diminutive stature in comparison to her zaftig subject, Miller excels as Smith. She has captured Smith's physical essence and added an emotional depth that was rarely present on camera, but surely existed in her private life. Smith's loving relationship with her son, Daniel (Nicholas Barasch), adds further shades of gray to a story that could easily be about a wasted clown, but is really about a single mother trying to support her son.
Or is it? The fairly constant presence of Smith's mother, Virgie (Susan Bickley, powerfully reprising the role she originated in London), serves as a reminder to the audience to not necessarily believe everything we see onstage. The feminist conscience of this opera, Virgie is mostly ignored by everyone, spare a couple of content-hungry reporters (the zanily expressive Segun Akande and Sarah Coomes). Her voice adds yet another variation to an already complex story. Men are just looking for ways to deposit their "sacks of love-puke," she screams in protest as her daughter prepares to wed Marshall.
Thomas has a gift for unrefined, sometimes disgusting language that really cuts to the bone. There is no purple prose in this opera, and the easily offended might want to stay away, although they would be missing out on a real operatic spectacle with a uniquely American subject.
This American premiere has retained the exact stage design and blocking as the original London production, including a custom hot-pink curtain monogrammed "AnR," for "Anna Nicole Regina." Simultaneously garish and eye-catching, the set and costumes are a wild mixture of grotesquely oversize, molded-plastic props and life-size, Barbie-doll evening gowns. It is a stinging appraisal of American aesthetics, but I couldn't help thinking that it all looked like so much fun!
No one comes out of Anna Nicole smelling like a rose, especially the carrion press who carry the distinct stench of refuse. The final image onstage is of a hundred Martha-Graham-dancing cameras, picking through Smith's garbage. It's an apt encapsulation of this entire evening, which is at once a "high-art" critique of celebrity culture and a capitulation to it.