I found my allotted space near the top of the Royal Opera House and began the ancient English ritual of apologising steadily whilst squeezing past people, taking my seat, folding my jacket and finding somewhere to put my feet. One of my neighbours obligingly picked up the theme and apologised in the gaps where I paused for breath, and we carried on in a desultory counterpoint until the other neighbour helped us round it off by expressing enormous regret for her shawl, which had nearly encroached on my seat. Custom accomplished, we took in the auditorium, which had been given a hasty makeover for the production of this opera about the life of a painkiller-addicted ex-Playboy bunny who married a billionaire. The vast red curtains which usually hid the stage had been replaced by equally titanic pink ones, and the cherubs round the boxes had cut-outs of Anna Nicole’s face plastered onto them. Where the heraldic lion and unicorn usually flanked the royal crest, two musclemen in bulging bikinis escorted another portrait of the opera’s heroine, and the initials of the current monarch had been replaced by those of the girl from Mexia. The effect was enjoyably lairy: it made one wonder why tons of red velvet should be considered so much more tasteful than the pink variety, or why the face of a dead pinup was so much less appropriate adorning the balconies than that of a fat flying child of dubious Classical/Scriptural descent. And even the hermaphrodites around the crest weren’t any sillier than the bearded and breasted figures which are carved into many great houses of the Elizabethan nobility. One thing was clear: the team producing Anna Nicole were having a laugh. Whether the audience would go along with them remained to be seen.
However skilfully they’d defaced it, using the main house at Covent Garden to stage a piece like Anna Nicole was always going to be a controversial move. The tabloid papers had been frothing at the mouth for a while – expect the same when Shakespeare’s Globe stages The God of Soho later this season – and even my neighbours who had presumably paid for their seats and turned up to see the show weren’t entirely sure about it. “It’d be nice to find a good modern opera,” the one on my right-hand side said, “There hasn’t been anything that’s had the quality to stay around since Nixon in China. I’m not sure this’ll be it, though.” Rumours of a filthy libretto (by Richard Thomas, who co-wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera) and a pole-dancing sequence had led to accusations that the Opera House was dumbing down, bowing to fashion and otherwise capitulating to the lowest common denominator. On the other hand, the composer Mark-Anthony Turnage’s previous work included an operatic version of the Oedipus myth and a Sean O’Casey adaptation, as well as a cracking trumpet concerto. After all, Covent Garden doesn’t commission nobodies: if this was going to be an insult to the western opera tradition, it was going to be a carefully considered and through-composed insult.
It had me at the prologue. Mark-Anthony Turnage’s music is energetic, dramatic and joyously veers from raucous to moody, closely matching Richard Thomas’s libretto. There are large slabs of jazz and show-tune mixed in with the classical, and some outrageous nods to previous works. I caught what appeared to be references to Monty Python, the Halloween horror movies, Miles Davis, Guns n Roses and The Sound of Music. They juggle genres as well: at one point the chorus becomes the staff of a Wal-Mart store, and produce a pastiche spiritual about “workin’ on the looooow wage”. Scrabbling for the drugs in her duffel bag, Anna Nicole produces a broken-down, grotesque parody of the vocal gymnastics of the Queen of the Night from The Magic Flute. More disturbing are the parallels drawn between Anna Nicole’s relationship to her billionaire sugar-daddy and the plot of Annie: Thomas puts a brilliantly warped song in his mouth about the need to hang on, never get old, because “someday, tomorrow never comes”. At moments like these the eclectic music and cynical lyrics fuse to make a point: we are confronted with hollowness of platitudes about the “American Dream” for these characters, even though they are apparently living it out. Anna Nicole’s mother launched into a parodic “torch-song”, laden with the kind of viciously misandrist and misogynist language which made one person on our row walk out, but which pointed up the moral problems of a genre of tunes which celebrates female pain and longing, finding their abandonment and betrayal poetic. Not all of the show is as carefully and subversively loaded, but it goes off with a hell of a bang nonetheless.
The first act ended with a big number as Anna Nicole wed her geriatric oilman and I scrambled to the amphitheatre bar. It’s something of an extreme sport, ordering a drink at Covent Garden. All your friends tell you it’s a really dumb idea, and you know they’re right, but somehow you still end up at that point where he rings up the price on the till and you go numb from the sheer impact of it. A small voice at the back of your head tells you that this is really going to hurt in the morning, but for the moment you can’t feel a thing. As I reeled away, clutching my wine with one hand and my sore wallet with the other, I heard a couple of girls singing lines from the last scene to each other and giggling. Not often you hear that with a new opera, I thought – a definite score for Mark-Anthony Turnage. Or Richard Thomas, depending on what they were giggling at. I wriggled my way through the crowd, apologising every two paces, and got a look at my fellow patrons. There were certainly a lot more people under forty – indeed, under thirty – than I would have expected for a Covent Garden production. It seemed Anna Nicole had indeed managed to pull in some people who wouldn’t have turned up for next week’s Wagner. The bells started, and as I began to rewriggle my steps out of the bar, I heard a voice behind me telling its companion that this show was no Nixon in China.
Musically, the second half didn’t let up for a moment. Turnage’s score kept the fluent combination of classical and jazz textures seething up, and erstwhile Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones (I bet he hates being called that) rose from the gloom of the pit to make a brief appearance on stage. For dramatic impact, though, it didn’t quite fulfil the promise of the first act. The arc of the small-town girl’s rise to fame wasn’t matched by any similar narrative move – there was some brilliant and even occasionally moving depictions of the infamy which followed the fame, but no forward impetus. Both were superb in their way, but there was a sense that the opera had run out of plot a bit too early. Events took place off-stage and were related in long “messenger” sequences – which dramatised the show’s concern with how the story was constructed and contested in the media, but it all felt like a long thematic approach to the final death scene. We all knew it was coming, but the last sequence still had extraordinary impact: Anna Nicole zipped herself up in a bodybag, surrounded by a crowd of camera-headed creatures which had been stalking her all the way through the second act, peering at her and sorting through piles of rubbish on the stage. The sudden blackout at the end produced a pause, then elated applause. After the curtain calls I was fumbling for my jacket when my left-hand neighbour remarked that it had been good fun, but she had thought more of Nixon in China.
That shouldn’t be the epitaph for an opera like this. In a sense it was inevitable: staging Anna Nicole at Covent Garden, sandwiched amidst the great repertoire, was inviting comparisons which were never going to do it any favours. But that’s the fault of the usual production system, not Turnage or Thomas: we need more new work, so that not everything at such a venue is judged next to opera it never intended to compete with. Anna Nicole is witty, satirical, terrific fun and deserves to be enjoyed on those grounds. If we approach every new piece with the full weight of the past, we will crush any future opera might have.
This article was originally published by California Literary Review, February 2011