Despite not quite being ‘une authorité’ on opera, (I did once watch Julia Roberts watch La Traviata in Pretty Woman) I’m pretty sure I will be among the throng of celebrity-devotees in line to get a ticket for Anna Nicole Smith: The Opera, opening at the Royal Opera House next month. Mark-Anthony Turnage is responsible for turning Smith, the surgically enhanced, ‘debatable’ gold digger, stripper and addict, into a modern day tragic heroine. In some ways it’s a rags-to-riches tale, the KFC waitress done good; married to an 89 year old oil billionaire and the star of her own reality TV show by her thirties. Nowadays she appears instead to be best known for misfortune and tragedy: the suicide of her 20 year-old son, and her overdose less than six months later. The varied hysteria of her life forms storylines wholly suited to an Eastenders Christmas Omnibus, let alone an operatic production.
In other words, it’s perfect material. The last ‘modern-day’ styled operas and musicals have been based around The Jerry Springer Show (2003) and Nixon’s diplomatic efforts in China (1987). It’s not difficult to see that the chronicle of Anna Nicole Smith is easily the most compelling. But there’s something about it that simply doesn’t sit right. It feels awkward, I suppose. It’s awkward because she’s dead, and somehow the Jerry Springer treatment doesn’t work quite so well on real-life heartbreak and hardship. Richard Thomas who wrote the libretto admits the difficulties in writing something which moved from ‘crazy-arsed comedy to utter bleakness’. I wonder how many people in the audience will titter at outrageous sex scenes between Smith and the tiny old man in a wheelchair when they know the tragedy coming a couple of scenes later.
Anna Nicole Smith ticks all the boxes for the perfectly tragic modern day heroine, for a perfectly timeless production. All the old themes are there: love, death, sex, and betrayal. Her untimely end is hardly different to Bizet’s Carmen, and Verdi’s Violetta. I don’t think it matters remotely that bull-fights and Barons have been replaced by silicone breasts and billionaires. I don’t even think that it matters that the Royal Opera House is cashing in mercilessly on celebrity obsession. The aim is to make this production relatable, and I’m certain that this aspect will be a success. What is so unfortunately grotesque is that audience members will not possibly be able to fully remove themselves from the drama on stage. Unlike our favourite female leads in the operas of the past, Anna Nicole Smith was one of the many celebrities playing out their drama in the world in which we actually live, which of course is the real tragedy. It is more than disconcerting to watch events unfold on a stage that every audience member inhabits. The fantasy land of Tosca is perhaps easier to stomach that the drug-induced, unstable fantasy land of Smith herself.
I look forward to seeing it. But I also know that I’ll probably be somewhere towards the back, squirming with discomfort. And wishing I was home watching that Eastenders omnibus instead.