Cher Public


Is there anything more essentially operatic than the suffering of women? Degraded by men, oppressed by society, killed by improbable plot contrivances, the women of opera suffer endlessly for our amusement.  

But that’s missing the point. Opera isn’t all about looking down on women. What we love about it isn’t seeing how weak these characters are, but rather how strong—think of the goosebumps when Tosca stabs her tormentor, or when she throws herself from the parapet; a pawn in a game of sex and politics, she seizes control over life and death (even her own).

On a more abstract level, we can be satisfied that within even the most brutalized diva, while the world ruins her, torments her, and finally takes her life, there remains an indestructible spiritual core that only the audience can see or, more to the point, hear. They transcend their suffering as if through sheer ecstatic subjectivity: when she trots off into the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre, Brunhilde isn’t just leading Grane to their master; the glorious music and, ideally, the glorious performance of the soprano, tell us that something is being redeemed—her? us?

And then there’s Anna Nicole. The heroine of Mark Anthony Turnage‘s opera, now in its premiere New York run at BAM, is not a noble virgin or a warrior princess. She’s a lapdancer turned reality TV star best known for her golddigging second marriage, her enormous fake breasts, the fluctuations of her waistline, and her ugly death by overdose.

Get it?? The joke is right there in the title. Anna Nicole: The Opera. An opera! About Anna Nicole! Just in case you didn’t pick up on the irony of treating trailer trash like a classical diva, the Barbie-pink curtain of Richard Jones‘s production replaces the coat of arms from the Royal Opera House with Anna’s pretty face—HONI SOIT QUI MAL Y PENSE, hey is that French for Haters Gonna Hate?—and the E II R with an A N R.

As that curtain goes up, it’s clear that the creators are looking down their noses at America’s lower class in general, and at the main character in particular. Even if you didn’t have the curtain to cue you in, you’d know right away that this is a British piece because all of the characters are constantly going on about the American dream, which nobody actually does in the U.S. unless they’re trying to sell you a pickup truck or a piece of legislation. The condescending humor starts immediately, with jokes at the expense of Anna’s cousin’s meth-ruined teeth, and I can’t imagine I’ll ever see another opera that invites us so openly to laugh at the shape of a woman’s body: first Anna’s huge implants, then her famous weight-gain.

The mechanics of the plot here are a lot less Tosca than Lulu, especially in light of the symmetry with which Anna climbs to the top of the world and then seems to hit each rung on the way down. But even Lulu seems, sometimes, in control of her own destiny. Poor Anna seems to be manipulated entirely by forces beyond her control. And the best moments in Anna Nicole are those in which the creative team eases off on the mockery of its gauche protagonist and instead concentrates on those malign forces: the misery of life in her hometown pushes her towards single motherhood in Houston; the crushing poverty of raising a child on her Wal-Mart wages pushes her towards lapdancing; the economics of the “gentleman’s club” push her towards a pair of implants; the resulting back pain pushes her towards the pain pills that will kill her.

Then there’s the media. Richard Thomas‘s libretto lacks the subtlety to anything too interesting with his chorus of television gossipmongers—every time a character said the word “bitch” in this piece, I felt as though he was expecting me to laugh (get it?? It’s opera, but with SWEARS)—but there is one lovely moment, the blowjob scene, where his (or Jones’s) stage direction uses them to obstruct the sex act itself. The nubile blonde’s fellatio of her octogenarian husband isn’t being kept out of sight because it’s so titillating and disgusting that we don’t want to see it, it’s kept out of sight because it’s so titillating and disgusting that everybody wants to see it, and the ensuing crowd is blocking our view. It says a lot about why we gawk at celebrities, and implicates the audience in a smart and funny way.

In another, more conventional review I’ve written of this production for Musical America (behind a paywall, I think), I compare the piece to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, the film that gave us the word “paparazzo,” and there’s an echo in Jones’s production of the ugly swarm of paparazzi that swirls around the unfortunate Mrs. Steiner. Here, the camera itself becomes a character, preening like a carrion bird at Anna’s wedding, then slowly multiplying to occupy the entire stage, until it has replaced the entire chorus with a flock of scavengers, picking through the garbage strewn around her corpse.

Let’s be clear: Anna Nicole is a rigorous piece of music and strong piece of theater, with important social ideas at its heart. Frankly, it’s better than it has any right to be. But at its core is a failure of empathy—Anna’s music never really speaks to us, she’s never quite allowed that transcendent moment of escape, and as a result she is only punished, never redeemed. To what extent are Turnage, Jones and Thomas really telling her story, and to what extent are they just three more men cashing in on the suffering of a beautiful woman?

Photos: Stephanie Berger.

  • Camille

    Cathérine Clément, anyone?

    I believe, by the way, that the correct term is “GAZONGAS”, is it not?

    Uh, perhaps it should be mentioned that this woman, the titular heroine—thank you Bernie—was the mother of a child, an almost seven year old girl. Imagine what this little girl will feel someday when she encounters this mess. Hopefully she will be shielded until the last possible moment from this circus.

    Dan Johnson, nice to see you. back here.

    • Grane

      I’m partial to the term “bazooms” because my mother has always used it--as has Joan Rivers, I believe.

  • LittleMasterMiles

    Thanks for articulating much of what I felt about Anna Nicole. However, you seem to pull your punch at the end—after exposing (almost) everything that makes AN a dramatic failure you claim that it’s “a rigorous piece of music and strong piece of theater.” I don’t get it.

    Musically, in particular, I found the opera bland and unmemorable, with only two really affecting moments: one was Anna’s “This is my time” aria near the end of Act I, just after the boob job, when we seem to get a glimpse into her sincere feelings, or at least an ambition that is authentic and not thrust upon her. It throws her opacity into sharp relief for the rest of the opera. The other moment was the “low wage” chorus from the Wal-Mart scene—the slow jazz march worked well here. But why was this music reprised during Virgie’s lament near the end of the opera? Not because of any thematic connection, but because it’s the “sad music.” For the rest, Turnage’s score is based in big-band jazz and pop styles from the 1940s and 50s—a vocabulary foreign to Anna Nicole’s life.

    • Belfagor

      Bravo LittleMasterMiles, that’s it exactly -- it’s a toothless score for the most part, and the ‘pop’ references are out of date -- surprising as Turnage plays up to his ‘cool’ image with high profile collaborations with jazz musicans, and even channelled a Beyonce song into an orchestral piece.

      I think DanJohnson has it right too: but I think the ‘criticism’ of america, isn’t quite that -- it’s incompetent satire by composer/librettist who should have hired a researcher to make their view of American trash culture more authentic -- it’s essentially an outsiders view and it doesn’t ring true (is it this same thing that makes ‘Carmen’ impossible for Spanish audiences?)

      I also think that the other great 20th century operas about destroyed females, Lulu, of course, and ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtensk’ have far more deeply etched musical viewpoints when portraying the heroine. Katerina Ismailova is clearly a monster, but we see why that comes to be, and most significantly of all, Shostakovich obviously falls in love with her. Nothing of the sort happens here -- there seem to be no redeeming, or even very human qualities in Anna Nicole -- it’s an opera by two naughty naughty boys who think its ever so daring to rude words at the opera and have naughty acts onstage -- that’s about the depths of it -- ‘Anna Nicole’ is a pretext for schoolboy rudery -- honestly, I do think they are old enough to know better……

  • cosmodimontevergine

    “Honi soit qui mal y pense” is old French for “Evil be to him who evil thinks.”

    It seems to me that both this review and that of James Jorden in the NY Post are reading an anti-American sentiment into “Anna Nicole” which isn’t there. Is criticism of an overly materialistic U.S.A. anti-American per se or is it just that it is British. Are the British not allowed to be critical of the U.S?

    Personally I found “Anna Nicole” funny, touching and provocative.

    • grimoaldo

      “Are the British not allowed to be critical of the U.S?”

      That’s an interesting question and historically the answer is “no, they are not”.
      Fanny Trollope (mother of novelist Anthony) after a tour across the US wrote a book called “Domestic Manners of the Americans” 1832, and Charles Dickens noted his impressions in “American Notes” ten years later and they both strongly criticised the same things, slavery, boastfulness, and the then very prevalent habit of almost all men chewing tobacco and spitting the juice out all over the place.
      The books caused outrage in America, the idea being that foreign guests should not criticise the US. This only caused Dickens to redouble his criticism in the novel Martin Chuzzlewit in which the eponymous hero goes to the US to try to make his fortune and nearly dies of poverty and disease with even stronger criticism from Dickens of US charlatans, braggarts and slave owners. When there was a UK/US TV co-production of “Martin Chuzzlewit” some years back, they left out the American scenes, they said because they were a digression to the plot. but many people (including me) felt that it was because it was still unacceptable in the US for their country to be criticised by a foreigner.

      • grimoaldo

        And on similar lines, in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Gondoliers” (1889), in a song with the words
        “When you have nothing else to wear
        But cloth of gold and satin rare
        For cloth of gold you cease to care
        Up goes the price of shoddy”
        At the words “up goes the price of shoddy” the orchestra originally played the opening bars of “The Star Spangled banner” which caused such outrage in the US that G&S had to take it out.
        By that time G&S had spent nearly twenty years making fun of Victorian British values and everything about England that the Victorians held most dear, but put in one joke about the US and they had to take it out.

    • phoenix

      Tch-tch -- everything is politics now & forever!
      -- Many people are fed up reading about the present-day Brits chanting their anti-U.S. yada. Most people around my neck of the woods (even those of U.K. ancestry) have harsh words for U.K. as well as Canada-even though the border is only a short drive from here) -- but then I live in a remote county that doesn’t even have a Met HD movie theater, so of course I can’t speak for everyone.
      -- When I was a boy in school we were taught that the British were our traditional enemies -- the first country to attack Washington D.C. -- but let’s forgive and forget. No, I don’t care for Dickens’ one-sided social attitudes nor am I the least bit interested in Fanny & her son, but be realistic -- slavery is a crime now in U.S. and very few residents (even out in the sticks where I am) chew tobacco anymore.
      -- Thanks for all the info about old negative Brit-U.S. attitudes -- it’s nice to be reciprocated!

      • Often admonished

        Thomas’ libretto is the big fault. The hackneyed idiom and tiresome rhythms give the composer meagre help. As for Satire on the Americun Dream, well Borat gets it better, that awful film is both more acute and embarrassingly funny.

    • I should point out that I’m not claiming the creators of Anna Nicole somehow hate America--I meant exactly what I said, that they seemed condescending to the American poor. While it’s true that I find it, perhaps irrationally, that much more galling when somebody throws cheap insults at American “white trash” from atop a perch across the pond, I’d surely be just as uncomfortable seeing any New Yorker make such easy fun of Texas.

      And I swear that I do know what “Honi soit” actually means.

    • DonCarloFanatic

      Is there any chance that this opera will ever be revised? Doesn’t anyone ever take a second look at their creations nowadays, and fix the flaws that critic after critic cites and the public clearly sees, too?

      Or is it just lack of talent?

    • Quanto Painy Fakor

      “… Unless the company can raise a total of $7 million by the end of the month (of which only $123,000 has so far been pledged via Kickstarter, which the goal is $1 million), they’re going to need a lot more body bags.”

      But David Partrick Stearns reported that they have found an angel. Maybe fictional?