The tale of Anna Nicole Smith – wife (twice over), mother, model, actress, wannabe, death by drug overdose in a Florida hotel room in 2007, aged 39 – is perhaps an unlikely subject for an opera, but her unique story has been brought to the main stage of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in a new commission composed by Mark Anthony Turnage with a libretto by Richard Thomas (Jerry Springer: the Opera). It’s the hottest ticket in town – and I managed to grab an invitation to a Saturday morning rehearsal.
I can assure you now that this is far from your usual operatic experience. From the moment you step into the auditorium there is something sparkling in the air; a new wind is blowing your way. When you sit down, you face a hot pink curtain, far from the standard royal red; you are excited by the prospect that this production is to be like no other.
The Royal Opera’s Anna Nicole, based on the Playboy girl’s life, has caused much debate and controversy. Let me, as a musician and young observer of opera, tell you now that opera has stood still for a long time, caught up in its own web, with obscure productions of existing operas receiving less than satisfactory reviews from the critics. The Royal Opera has seen the error of its ways, however, and has pushed the industry forward into a new era with this commission.
In the past I’ve shunned The Royal Opera for their backward thinking, their ‘in the box’ productions of operas of old that haven’t catered for the newer and younger audiences. It seems as though I was foolish to do so, what with this unusually modern commission, and I must say I am completely overjoyed by how forward-thinking this production is.
The story is cleverly dramatised and directed by Richard Jones and the extraordinary creative team. Visually it is a complete spectacle and mimics the original settings well, accompanied by a lyrical, jazz-inspired, free-flowing, devastating score from Mark Anthony Turnage. You are bound to be blown away by his writing for the chorus and orchestra, conducted by Antonio Pappano, Music Director of The Royal Opera, as well as by the sumptuous vocal lines of Anna Nicole (soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek) and her mother Virgie (mezzo Susan Bickley).
Richard Thomas offers an extremely clever, witty and, best of all, modern libretto complete with modern phrases, expletives and sexy lines heard normally in the bedroom and never expected inside the Opera House. One should come out feeling naughty – incredibly naughty. This opera will certainly divide the mischievous opera enthusiasts and the opera snobs.
Anna Nicole is currently playing to main stage audiences at the Royal Opera House, until 4 March. The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London WC2E 9DD. Box Office: 020 7304 4000. Website.