The story of Anna Nicole: is it really a laughing matter?
It has taken me several years to build up the courage that I thought I would require to see Marc-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House. This is not for any of the reasons I suspect you’re thinking. It’s not because of the subject matter. Or the swearing. Or the pink curtains, the electric guitars, the giant nodding dogs. Not because the music is by someone who was born after the nineteenth century (where, yes, I do like spending quite a lot of my time). It is because I was worried that I wouldn’t feel connected to the characters. I have no problem forging emotional ties to the most unbelievable of protagonists in opera from Monteverdi to Menotti. But I didn’t follow the Anna Nicole story as it was happening in the press, and I loathe reality TV shows. So I worried that I would want to engage, want to connect, and find myself unable to do so.
Curiously, the reason I ended up staggering half-angry, half-tearful out of the theatre on Thursday night was exactly the opposite problem. I had been through a complete emotional roller coaster, felt sorry and furious and heartbroken, moved by the plight of the characters… but I was completely unable to see why the story had been presented to us, by Turnage, librettist Richard Thomas and director Richard Jones, in the way that it had. Because it seemed to me that actually, they didn’t want us to care at all.
It’s superbly ironic that I find myself writing this piece, having had several conversations with friends in the last few days about how uninterested I am in reviewing – well, scared at the very prospect of it, actually – how that kind of public judgement of the skills and artistry of others is a landmine-ridden path that demands tremendous knowledge, wisdom and fortitude, and I don’t feel I have any of those things in sufficient quantities. So just in case you decide to treat this as a review, I feel I should say first of all that the music, the singing, the orchestra, the performance in general, was superb. Turnage’s score is excellently engaging, full of witty cross-cultural musical references and beautiful lyrical moments; and his cast quite simply stunning in its execution and realisation (particularly Eva-Maria Westbroek and Alan Oke). For these elements, I have nothing but praise.
But this plot. These people. What do the creators of this show want us to think, what are they trying to say? Anna Nicole’s story is overwhelmingly tragic, and her story has the potential to be funny, thoughtful, a moment to reflect on just what popular culture can be at its very worst, and what fame might offer at its very best; and to stare long, hard, and unblinkingly at the culture that allowed her to be treated as less than human, a caricature, a laughing stock that people loved to hate.
I genuinely couldn’t tell you what Turnage, Thomas or Jones thought of Anna Nicole Smith. What I can tell you is this. They think that getting opera singers to swear almost continuously and sing several numbers in praise of ‘titties’ is hilarious. They think there’s tremendous comedy potential in the language and actions of lap dancers. I mean… sex in an opera house! It’s funny, right? Everything in the plot to do with sex. All of it. All funny, apparently. Also the lawyer Howard Stern – he’s funny, because he’s supposed to be such an awful person… except, actually, when he fully enters the plot in Act 2, he is a complete non-entity, with no discernible personality at all. He’s a cardboard cut-out. They all are: the lap dancers, Anna Nicole’s family, the people of Mexia, her first husband Billy, her second husband, the octogenarian J. Howard Marshall.
And what about Anna herself? There is some attempt to make her a sympathetic character, but only if she’s conversing with her son Daniel, or suffering from backache (because that’s physical but not about sex, so that’s not funny). There was no attempt, as far as I could see, to tease out how aware she was of the path she had chosen; how canny her career moves were; what emotional storms she might have experienced as her life unfolded. Just a strange alternation of lyrical moments to do with Daniel, and an utterly dispassionate, cynical, played-for-laughs depiction of the rest of her story. And don’t get me wrong, some of it was funny, and I have no problem with laughs at the opera… but not at the expense of watching a real, well-rounded narrative.
Maybe I’m an extremely old-fashioned stick-in-the-mud. Maybe I need to lighten up. But I could scarcely tell which upset me more – the utter lack of compassion with which the story was treated on stage, or the extraordinary amount of guffawing from the audience around me, not only at the trivializing of this woman’s life, but every time somebody said ‘boobs’ or ‘fuck’. Really? Is swearing in an opera really that funny or revolutionary? ENO translators have been shoehorning expletives into their translations of Mozart for years, and it’s not as if this is the first new opera libretto to feature extreme language.
More to the point: this is the same building in which people sit and sob and yell bravo at the end of Lulu, or La Traviata, or any of a host of other operas about women whose sexuality is used by them and against them with tragic consequences. This story was the opera world’s big chance – the chance for its creators – to prove to current and would-be audience members that actually, there is nothing between Anna Nicole and Violetta, or Stern and Schigolch. That those plots, those characters, that music is as relevant and compelling today as it was when it was still wet ink on new manuscript paper. And it didn’t. Not even slightly. Perhaps the opera’s creative team wanted to avoid any kind of moralising message; perhaps they were relying upon the po-faced Covent Garden crowd to be sufficiently disapproving not to need any further explanation. Whatever they were after, I left feeling ashamed of all of us. And desperately sad that I hadn’t been given the opportunity to know Anna Nicole Smith better.