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.