Anna Nicole Blows Brooklyn! New York City Opera Production of Turnage Opera at BAM

Sarah Joy Miller and Chorus in Anna Nicole. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Sarah Joy Miller and Chorus in Anna Nicole. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Anna Nicole
Composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage
Libretto by Richard Thomas
Directed by Richard Jones
Conducted by Steven Sloane

Scenic design by Miriam Buether
Costume design by Nicky Gillibrand
Lighting design by Mimi Jordan Sherin & D.M. Wood
Choreography by Aletta Collins

Anna Nicole was commissioned by the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London and premiered there in February 2011

Anna Nicole – Sarah Joy Miller
Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother – Susan Bickley
J. Howard Marshall II, Anna Nicole’s second husband – Robert Brubaker
Stern, Anna Nicole’s lawyer – Rod Gilfry
Daddy Hogan, Anna Nicole’s father – James Barbour
Shelley, Anna Nicole’s cousin – Elizabeth Pojanowski
Deputy Mayor of Mexia – Joshua Jeremiah
Aunt Kay – Mary Testa
Billy, Anna Nicole’s first husband – Ben Davis
Blossom – Christina Sajous
Doctor Yes – Richard Troxell
Larry King, a television journalist – John Easterlin
Trucker – Stephen Wallem
Mayor of Mexia – Michael Hance

By now the word is that Anna Nicole, by Mark-Antony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas, is likely to be the New York City Opera’s last production. If the City Opera is dying, it is going out magnificently, with its greatly reduced season setting a model for opera houses in the US and around the world. The 2013-14 season, if it takes place, includes the important contemporary opera discussed here, a 2011 commission by the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, followed by a long-forgotten setting of Metastasio’s Endimione by Johann Christian Bach, a staged performance of Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle, and finally one staple of the standard operatic repertory, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, the final instalment in Christopher Alden’s innovative staging of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas. The schedule is small, but every opera has a vital reason to be in it.

Last season I was only able to attend Thomas Adès’ Powder her Face and Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. In my review of the Adès, I thought that Jay Scheib’s exaggerated, Pythonesque production served the work poorly in concept, but the execution was brilliant, thoroughly prepared, and performed with energy and commitment. As much as I disagreed with the stage director’s decisions, I couldn’t doubt that the enterprise was worth every drop of sweat and every penny. The Turn of the Screw, on the other hand, was right in every way, I thought. The temporal shift to the early 1950s, the time of the opera’s creation, was evocative and enlightening; the set was magnificent; the singing was very beautiful; and the acting was powerful. This was one of those very few truly great operatic performances one will never forget. These productions, like Anna Nicole, were not standard repertory efforts, with stars stepping off their planes and into their costumes with minimal rehearsal. On the contrary, every singer, every costume, every set, and every other element was bespoke for that particular series of performances, and the interaction of all these working parts was perfected as far as operatically possible to make the most of them.

One can’t say that opera composers, librettists, and the conductors and administrators who commission their work have been lacking in resourcefulness in coming up with fresh subjects. We have had operas about American presidents, the atomic bomb, and now Anna Nicole follows hard on the stilettos of Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll, the subject of Thomas Adès’ youthful work of the mid-1990s, just when Anna Nicole Smith was in her heyday. The Duchess’ considerable wealth enabled her to indulge an oversized sexual appetite—which was spread all over the tabloids at a time when innocent, primarily British readers could reap the full shock value of the disclosures. Anna Nicole, who wanted to be Marilyn Monroe and thought of changing her name accordingly, tapped into money through a sexuality she made marketable in a true-blue American way, the insertion of oversized breast implants, protuberances large enough to catch the eye of an 88-year-old oil billionaire who happened to walk into the Houston strip club where she was performing. Her true-life story contains every cliché of the American rise-and-fall story, although it seems a little odd to call an actual experience or event in one’s life a cliché, but if they are clichés, are we to blame it on the deficiencies in the ambition and imagination of an uneducated small-town Texas girl, or are we to blame it on the environment, the opportunities American society offered her? In any case the life of neither woman showed much redeeming value, although both were animal-lovers and supported related causes.

A billion-dollar marriage! Robert Brubaker, Griffin Reese, Sarah Joy Miller in Anna Nicole. Photo Stephanie Berger

A billion-dollar marriage! Robert Brubaker, Griffin Reese, Sarah Joy Miller in Anna Nicole. Photo Stephanie Berger

Her trajectory proceeded from teen marriage to escape from her small town life to jobs in greasy spoons, a Walmart, a strip club, then to the office of plastic surgeon who changed her life, an affair and marriage with said oil tycoon, and a life spent in the public eye, either through magazine covers and centerfolds, movies, and television—and of course the tabloids. Her adventures with alcohol, pills,1 and men fuelled stories to go with the pictures, and those predilections have their way of bringing matters to an early end. Anna Nicole also had a lawyer in her life, Howard Stern, who exploited her shamelessly, and her son from her first marriage, Daniel, to whom, it is said, she was more attached than to anything else in life. His death from a drug overdose destroyed her will to live, and a few months later she came to the same end. In the opera she sits watching television next to Daniel in his body bag, and at the end she zips herself up in one of her own.2

Nicholas Barasch, Sarah Joy Miller in Anna Nicole. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Nicholas Barasch, Sarah Joy Miller in Anna Nicole. Photo Stephanie Berger.

That final detail should offer a small taste of the saucy, acidic libretto Richard Thomas supplied for Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music. The story of Anna Nicole’s rise and fall gets loose with a burst of energy recalling as much a Broadway musical (intentionally so, of course) as the opening of a Brechtian morality tale. This elaborate opening chorus of tv newsmen in grey polyester suits and newswomen in garish royal blue outlines the story for anyone who may not know the famous tale and at the same time creates an ironic distancing of the narrative by cocooning us in the trappings of American media at their worst. Librettist Richard Thomas and director Richard Jones are in full command of their Brecht. They don’t need didactic signs at every juncture. The Effekt of this introductory chorus has staying power—not that the ensuing scene devoted to Anna Nicole’s youth in Mexia, Texas doesn’t include a big sign with the town’s name, or that the Walmart logo stretching across the stage, as the chorus sing of low-paying jobs, doesn’t get its point across—in a rather heart-breaking way, to tell the truth. (For me, that was the saddest scene in the opera.) Another strain in Anna Nicole‘s pedigree comes from Berg’s Lulu, and the presence of body builders offered an amusing hommage.

Anna Nicole gets an anatomy lesson. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Anna Nicole gets an anatomy lesson. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Everything's possible with Doctor Yes. Richard Troxell and Cast in Anna Nicole. Photo  Stephanie Berger.

Everything’s possible with Doctor Yes. Richard Troxell and Cast in Anna Nicole. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Richard Thomas tells his story in a linear series of vignettes depicting the main moments of Anna Nicole’s life in an environment resembling a Mahagonny become real—which, of course, ha happened. This structure suggests a Brechtian dramaturgy in its own bitterly ironic way, but Thomas goes further, by bringing on Anna Nicole’s mother to moralize about her daughter’s life, as it flows upwards and climbs downwards. Dressed in a Texan police officer’s uniform, Mother looks worn out and perhaps a little butch, and she appears faintly ridiculous, as she expresses her distress and pain at the life her daughter is creating for herself. In her dowdiness, she becomes the one character we can relate to as a grown up in the opera. If we could walk inside the action and experience it in reality, she would be the person we’d pull aside and ask, “Just what is going on here?” Between her tragedy and the grotesque reality her daughter has brought her into, she has been thoroughly soaked in bile and sorrow.

Susan Bickley, Sarah Coomes in Anna Nicole Photo Stephanie Berger

Susan Bickley, Sarah Coomes in Anna Nicole Photo Stephanie Berger

From the beginning, the chorus who witness and follow Anna Nicole’s story are accompanied by a solitary dancer, clad in a black leotard, with an oversized false head in the form of a Bolex movie camera. This dancer steps gravely and inconspicuously around the soloists and chorus as another kind of observer. In Act II, as Anna Nicole deteriorates, the camera multiplies, as as she enters her final agony the stage is full of Bolexes and fanciful variants of them. The heads were brilliantly designed and executed, as if the eyes of these somber, obsolete devices engulfed Anna Nicole on her way to her  black bag.

The black cameras close in on Anna Nicole. Photo Stephanie Berger.

The black cameras close in on Anna Nicole. Photo Stephanie Berger.

The sets and costumes by Miriam Buether and Nicky Gillibrand respectively made every person and object seem spun out of gossamer filaments of garish polyester. The cutesy animaloids of the later scenes were especially delightful. Plastic-sheathed furniture was abundant.

I know Mark-Anthony Turnage mostly through his well-wrought, richly textured symphonic work, in which one can lose oneself as if nodding off into a dream. His music, although energetically played by the NY City Opera Orchestra, seemed more unobtrusive than one might expect, especially in Act I. Turnage seemed especially concerned to make his score an efficient vehicle for the story. He didn’t want the joyride to stop for an extended aria with a musical identity of its own. Certain lines in the latter part stood out as ariosi, as the opera grew darker and more reflective. The music throughout was always eloquent, always ready for the foul language which never ceased to delight the audience. You don’t just leave a place like Mexia, Texas, you get the fuck out of it, after all. Anna Nicole’s trademark greeting to her audience in the opera is “I want to blow you all…a kiss!” If this is only a tease, those who enjoyed Powder her Face will be happy to know that in Anna Nicole fellatio graces the stage at BAM once again.

Anna Nicole on Larry King Live! Photo Stephanie Berger.

Anna Nicole on Larry King Live! Photo Stephanie Berger.

In fact I don’t think I have even seen a funnier opera. I overheard a number of people asking if there were libretti available. There were none. They would just have to tell the story all over again at home with their own stock of bad words.

Everything musical was thoroughly prepared and executed with energy and enthusiasm. There were no weak singers, and everyone seemed just right for her or his part. One often leaves the principals for last, but Sarah Joy Miller’s performance as Anna Nicole set the tone for the entire cast. Brash and bubbling with a thoughtless unfocused energy, which seemed not to look around the next corner, but retained enough force to carry her forward, she mugged and gestured and danced like a Broadway pro. Her stationery moments were not reflective or even conscious, but only poses for her audience, and Miller captured that marvellously. Her voice as an opera singer, which was pretty much always in play for her part, was well-knit, consistent, and full. On Tuesday evening, when I attended the performance, I thought it lacked brilliance and sparkle, but its fullness, along with the muscularity and energy of Miller’s performance, suited the part well. She used her big, widely-spaced eyes, which she seemed to be able to expand into small planets, with telling irony and wit. In a way she seemed more like Anna Nicole than the original.

The romantic lead without a doubt Anna Nicole’s son, Daniel, confidently played by Griffin Reese, Finn Robbins, and Nicholas Barasch at various ages, and they received warm applause from the audience. Next in line, in terms of the consorts who actually appear on stage, would be either the ancient oilman, J. Howard Marshall II, sung with enthusiasm and biting humor by Robert Brubaker, or Howard Stern, her icky lawyer friend, solidly sung by Rod Gilfry, who was costumed and acted in a more countrified way than one might expect. Perhaps this was meant to suggest that this was Anna Nicole’s atavistic Texan image of masculinity—nothing like the Jewish lawyer from LA.

Susan Bickley sang and acting Virgie, Anna Nicole’s mother with the kind of control and subtlety only a deeply experienced artist and consummate singer can achieve—the only role in the opera of that kind of complexity. Elizabeth Pojanowski, as Shelley, Anna Nicole’s dentally challenged cousin, sang plaintively of her embarrassment over the state of her mouth.

All the smaller parts were carried off to hilarious perfection. Ben Davis as Billy, Anna Nicole’s first husband, James Barbour as Daddy Hogan, Anna Nicole’s father, Michael Hance as the Mayor of Mexia, Joshua Jeremiah as the Deputy Mayor of Mexia, Richard Troxell as Doctor Yes, the plastic surgeon, and John Easterlin, Larry King, a television journalist sang as well as they entertained.

The Strip Club. Photo Stephanie Berger.

The Strip Club. Photo Stephanie Berger.

Many people have huffed over the idea of writing and producing an opera on the sleaze of American media, but Turnage and Thomas have created a bracingly vulgar, terrifically funny satire on American, really global media, and the creatures they manufacture. Yes, there is plenty of good old-fashioned British Yank-baiting in this, but they understand that this is a global phenomenon, if invented and perfected in the US. (The British have their own tradition in this, as you might see in the films, The Entertainer and Darling.) The Americans—a capacity audience—in BAM’s opera house had no trouble joining right in, perhaps with a locally-flavored tinge of Texas-baiting. This kind of show might not be allowed the new arts complex at Ground Zero, and some may debate whether it is anti-American or truly American, but the ride was great fun, and Anna Nicole is as true an opera as anything Mozart or Weill ever wrote.3 After its success at Covent Garden, it cried out for an American premiere. Dallas, Houston, LA? The New York City Opera is the perfect home for it. It will be a tragic loss if it goes away.

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  1. It is constantly repeated that Anna Nicole’s consumption of prescription painkillers was the result of the severe chronic back pain caused by her implants.
  2. Turnage lost his bother to a heroin overdose. For the deeply pained music he wrote about this, see my review of a 2006 performance of his Blood on the Floor at the Festival of Contemporary Music at Tanglewood.
  3. Weill mixed and extended the range of opera with elements of operetta, cabaret and street entertainment, but with the Dreigroschenoper and Mahagonny, he clearly set his foot in the opera house.
Michael Miller

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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