Was it dumb of me to expect nuance from Anna Nicole? The opera, which is currently playing a too-short run at BAM, was well-reviewed when it opened in London last year, and has been eagerly anticipated (by me) for the last few months. Although some were confused by Marc-Anthony Turnage's chosen subject, it made perfect sense to me. Anna Nicole Smith was a beautiful woman—truly—who wanted wealth and destroyed herself in the pursuit of it, becoming fodder for late-night jokes and endless lawsuits. In 2006, she gave birth to a daughter and lost a son within three days, and died six months later. What could be more operatic than that?
The only pitfall would be if Richard Thomas's libretto failed to take Anna seriously. British critiques of American culture don't always play well on this side of the Atlantic, and any sense that the all-British team was making fun of their exceptionally American hero would be sure to turn me off. The Times promised I would not be disappointed:
The three creators, all British, certainly had fun depicting Smith’s tawdry American life and skewering reality television. But their Anna emerged as an improbable operatic heroine; a restless woman yearning to escape her backwater birthplace, Mexia, Tex.; a striver determined to get ahead and raise a son in any way possible. Isn’t this the American dream?
I don't know what opera they were watching. Anna Nicole gave me a sick feeling from the first scenes, when her family is introduced as a gang of toothless, comic hicks. The Tennessean in me is highly sensitive to this kind of thing, but I'd like to think that the atrociously sung Southern accents would have made any audience member uneasy. That the comedy of the play's first part is built on jokes about Walmart, fried chicken and spousal abuse bother me not as an overproud southerner, but because they're lazy cracks. An opera should do better.
More troubling is the play's treatment of its heroine, who lacks the mad, irresistible ambition that defines most great operatic heroines. Instead, she is unassuming, dimwitted, and powerless. The only moment when the production slows down long enough to take her yearning seriously is in the moments after she's gotten her breast implants—a flimsy plastic-looking prosthetic that made Sarah Joy Miller look like one of the "sexy" mannequins that appear in costume shop windows around Halloween. (NSFW, I guess, if your boss thinks mannequins are erotic.)
From there, Anna Nicole shows no interest in the possibility that Anna might have been playing a part to get what she wanted. Her 89 year-old meal ticket, played by the powerful tenor Robert Brubaker, sings of his love for Anna's "baby voice," which might have been interesting if she hadn't been using a baby voice throughout. As a substitute for depth, Anna has chronic back pain—penance paid for her oversized implants, suggesting that breast augmentation wasn't just her original sin, but the whole of her character. She jumps up and down when given jewelry, she fawns over bodybuilders, she uses an on-stage toilet and walks away from it with toilet paper trailing from her butt. This is not a flattering portrayal.
The fat suit she dons for the plays conclusion, which was more exaggerated than Jenna Maroney's , was the most obvious indication that Thomas and Turnage had missed the point of their heroine's decline. Anna Nicole Smith did gain weight, and lost it and gained it again, but she was never obese. She was tacky and embarrassing the way that any painkiller addict might be if put on television, and the American tabloid media is quick to label any star who's gained weight a whale. That the opera goes along with that depiction told me that they were unable to find any interiority for Anna, and instead went along with the popular narrative of her life and death. Because that was such a hateful narrative, we are given a hateful opera.
In an interview with New York , Turnage said “If I’m really honest, I’m quite uncomfortable with it now. I don’t think we were trying to be cruel. But it’s mocking someone’s real life. I wouldn’t do it again.”
That discomfort shows. Rather than taking their heroine serious from the first scene, Turnage and Thomas let the audience laugh at Anna for the first 90 minutes of the production, and then try to change course just at the end. Unsurprisingly, that half-hearted approach fails.
At the end of her opera, Anna laments her mistakes. "I was wrong," she sings. "I was weak." It's impossible to imagine Turandot or Carmen or even Madame Butterfly being so apologetic. It wouldn't have taken much imagination to make Anna Nicole Smith's already tragic story larger than life. Anna Nicole , sadly, is much smaller than it.