The Brooklyn Academy of Music is currently hosting the New York City Opera's production of Anna Nicole. Originally commissioned by the Royal Opera House of London (and premiering there in February of 2011), Anna Nicole landed in New York for its stateside debut. Despite the City Opera's financial troubles, Anna Nicole was just simply the talk of the town, practically all anyone could even think about, dear, at the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Young Professionals Season Preview party. And it's worth discussing: Anna Nicole is a funny, at times disturbing look at America and its cruel, relentless celebrity machine.
Composed by Britons Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas, who also worked on Jerry Springer: The Opera (which was a musical), the lurid story of Anna Nicole (played by Sarah Joy Miller) Smith is familiar territory, seemingly ripe for parody. Not to play up the British aspect too much, but it's worth noting that one can imagine feeling as an older brother might when a friend makes fun of his younger sibling—"That's my brother, only I can make fun of him!" A skeptic might call it a 21st Century Yankee Doodle, if you will.
Anna Nicole Smith's story begins in a small town in Texas, where she was born as Vickie Lynn Hogan, dropped out of school in the 10th grade, and worked at Jim's Crispy Fried Chicken before marrying her first husband and giving birth to her first child, Daniel.
But the opera truly picks up in Houston, where she moves to work as a dancer in a strip club, struggling to gain attention because of her small chest. There she underwent breast augmentation surgery, and quickly became one of the most successful dancers at the club, eventually landing on the cover of the March 1992 issue of Playboy. Enter 86-year-old billionaire oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II, an oilman and crucial investor in what would become Koch Industries.
Court battles for Marshall's fortune, Smith's failed reality shows and shady endorsement deals (remember TrimSpa?), the death of her first son, her all-too-public paternity scandals and spiraling drug abuse become the basis for much of the play.
Smith's lawyer and one-time lover, Howard K. Stern, is a clear antagonist, omnipresent in the production even before he is technically introduced into the story (and the chorus, 40 male and female newscasters, along with Smith, point that out, shooing him away). A young Daniel fetches Smith pills throughout the show, which suggests a deeply ingrained addiction that began after her breast surgery.
The costumes are great. The set design was pretty special (in particular, a giant mattress serving as Smith's and Marshall's marital bed that takes up nearly the whole stage upon returning from intermission). Aesthetically, its reminiscent of Sophia Coppola's Marie Antoinette with loud colors and interludes of big, drummy (and less classically operatic) music. It's mostly the pink, though, which kind of grabs you and doesn't let go. There's the expected high/low culture blurring, to both good and bad effect. At times it feels like it is trying too hard, which could be a consequence of the medium and the unusually contemporary subject matter. There's a very real tension there.
A note about opera: I would venture to assume that most readers aren't super familiar with it. I've seen a few —The Tales of Hoffman at the Met was a highlight, though the most recent one was a Phillip Glass opera about Johannes Kepler in German — it was fucking insane. I literally don't remember it. (I fell asleep at one point. I regret that, but I was a freshman in college, and I sucked.) Opera is a rarity for even the most energetic culture hounds. It's a different form, one we aren't necessarily used to—storytelling happens differently, opera singing sounds differently—and it took me a moment to adjust to that.
John Easterlin as Larry King, Courtesy of BAM
The show can also feel indifferent about its subject. At its worst, one can't tell where the laughs are coming from and who they are coming at the expense of. Small towns? Dumb Americans? Poor people? There's definitely nothing quite like the American South. When Smith moves to Houston (the "big city," she calls it, which naturally gets big laughs form the "real" big city audience) a giant Wal-Mart sign comes down and a group of workers with those saggy, flesh-colored eyeless masks and grey hair marches across the stage singing a type of spiritual. This also gets a big laugh (Poor people? Minimum wage?), but it's a disturbing image.
The opera isn't very critical of Smith's and Marshall's relationship—it's pretty clear both of them knew what they were doing—and we understand that these people are like aliens. They communicate only in transactions, they speak in money and things. We can't really relate and we don't need to.
J. Howard Marshall, played by Robert Brubaker, is a real treat. At one point, he dons a shiny gold tracksuit and matching Adidas shoes. Another highlight is a song in the strip club about the legal requirement to keep their panties on ("It's what makes it okay!"). But it's followed by a big time jump from Marshall's death to Smith's second child, accomplished by flashing a pinup image of Smith that is gradually replaced by a descending image of a significantly heavier Smith against a backdrop of cheeseburgers. Too easy.
Anna Nicole seemed to share a lot with Infinite Jest—musings on advertising, the entertainment industry, corporations, America and the American Dream, and addiction. One of the enduring successes of IJ, though, is making addiction legible. Anna Nicole just has an addict at its center.
America is the real protagonist here and we gotta wonder: How did America produce this? Who wanted this? Why? What happens when that same America turns on you? It's such a uniquely American tragedy. What the show has more to say on, though, is not Smith, but what produced her. At times that comes at Smith's expense, and that's not the best route. "America, I gave you everything," Smith says in the show, "but you wanted more. I wanted more." I'm not so sure she wanted more, but the show certainly did.
The opera finishes on the same line that it begins with: "I want to blow you all...blow you all...a kiss," as Anna, after taking a shitload of pills, zips herself into her own body bag. The line gets major laughs at the beginning. By the end, there are none.
Anna Nicole is running at the Howard Gilman Opera House until September 28th. Info and tickets can be found here.