It’s a rags-to-riches story with sex, drugs, vast wealth and family tragedy. Perfect material for an opera.
Still, Britain’s venerable Royal Opera raised some eyebrows when it announced that its next production would be based on the short, sensational life of Playboy Playmate-turned-tabloid-superstar Anna Nicole Smith.
“Anna Nicole,” which opens Thursday, comes with an impeccably high-art cast and crew — and a warning of “extreme language, drug abuse and sexual content.”
Smith was just 39 when she died of an accidental drug overdose in February 2007, after a life documented in magazines and tabloids, on reality TV and in testimony from a series of court cases.
The company bills the show as “provocative in its themes, exciting in its bravura style and thrilling with its sheer contemporary nerve.”
“Anna Nicole” has impeccable opera credentials. It is directed by Richard Jones, who has worked with both the Royal Opera and the English National Opera, and conducted by Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera’s music director.
Music is by Mark-Anthony Turnage — composer of the operas “Greek” and “The Sliver Tassie” — and the libretto by Richard Thomas, co-creator of high art-meets-trash culture musical “Jerry Springer: The Opera.”
Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek — acclaimed for her performances in Wagner — plays Smith, with baritone Gerald Finley as her lawyer-turned-boyfriend, Howard K. Stern.
Smith’s story is luridly larger-than-life. A single mother from a small in town Texas, she reinvented herself after surgical enhancement as a voluptuous blonde bombshell and worked her way up from topless dancer to heiress via Playboy and reality TV.
In 1994, she married J. Howard Marshall, an oil tycoon 63 years her senior whom she met in a Houston strip club. When he died 14 months later, she battled with his family over his estimated $1.6 billion estate. The case rumbles on, four years after her death.
She lived her life in public, appearing in a reality show and even giving birth to a daughter by cesarean on camera. Three men, including Smith and Prince Frederic von Anhalt, the husband of Zsa Zsa Gabor, claimed to be the baby’s father.
Five days after the birth, Smith’s 20-year-old son Daniel died of an overdose in her Bahamas hospital room. She died five months later, of what was ruled an accidental overdose.
Thomas, writing in The Times newspaper, said Smith’s life was perfect material for opera: “absurdly beautiful … hysterically funny and heart-wrenchingly sad.”
“If we live our lives on a scale of one to 10 then most of us, most of the time, experience something between three and seven. Anna was one and 10s from beginning to end,” he wrote.
Thomas defended his choice of subject, noting that “no one goes to the opera to judge Carmen or Salome” — operatic heroines who could be pigeonholed as a two-timing Gypsy and a homicidal temptress.
It is not the first time opera as taken on divisive real-world subjects.
U.S. composer John Adams has written both “Nixon in China” — an opera about U.S. President Richard Nixon’s historic 1972 visit to Beijing that is considered a modern classic — and “The Death of Klinghoffer,” based on the murder of an elderly American during a 1985 cruise-ship hijacking by Palestinians. Two decades after its premiere, it routinely attracts protests wherever it is staged.
In 2006, the English National Opera staged an opera based on the life of Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
“Jerry Springer” — more a musical than a traditional opera — opened to rave reviews at Britain’s National Theatre in 2003, but angered some Christians with its hundreds of expletives, cast of lowlifes and depiction of Jesus Christ in a diaper admitting he is a “bit gay.”
The controversy did the show no harm. It later had a successful West End run and a national TV broadcast.
The Royal Opera is understandably a bit nervous. Lawyers have reportedly been consulted to ensure the opera’s depiction of living — and potentially litigious — people stays on the right side of the law.
Only six performances of “Anna Nicole” are planned — and all are sold out.