Arts and Entertainment | Theater

Gentlemen prefer blondes: Anna Nicole's tragic life, in opera

  • showtime | The Brooklyn Academy of Music puts on “Anna Nicole” with the requisite amount of glitz, but before the curtain closes the audience is treated to her tragic, Icarus-like fall from grace.
  • mommie dearest | Smith had a rocky relationship with her mother, Virgie Mae.

Guests are about to arrive, and Anna Nicole Smith is freaking out about the turkey. Her boyfriend, Howard K. Stern—not to be confused with the radio personality—had put it on broil instead of low.

“Get out of my face!” she shouts, on the verge of tears. Smith’s pout starkly contrasts with her glittery eye makeup and sexy Santa costume.

Stern apologizes for the mishap and tries to console her.

“Anna, you have so much in your life,” he says. “This does not have to be the stress.”

The camera cuts to family and friends arriving at Smith’s door for her 2002 Christmas party, filmed for the short-lived “The Anna Nicole Show.” In the episode’s remaining 20 minutes, Smith encourages her guests to take shots off an ice sculpture of her torso, makes out with Margaret Cho, and slurs the words to “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Meanwhile, Smith’s toothless cousin gets wasted, walks into the jacuzzi with her clothes on, strips multiple times, and starts a fistfight.

In a quiet moment, Smith vacantly looks into the camera.

“I want you to know that I’m having the best time... the best time,” she says, almost whispering. Christmas never looked so depressing.

Six years after her death from a prescription drug overdose at age 39, it’s tempting to write Smith off as a train wreck. The prescient Christmas special is one of the first results to appear when you search the star’s name on YouTube. 

But a new opera about Smith’s life could add nuance to the celebrity’s legacy. The Brooklyn Academy of Music and the New York City Opera are resurrecting Smith’s memory in the U.S. debut of “Anna Nicole.” The opera originally premiered at London’s Royal Opera House in 2011 and opened this year’s Next Wave Festival at BAM on Tuesday.

Billed as “a tragicomic portrait of one woman’s warped pursuit of the American dream,” the two-hour opera from composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas tracks a small-town Southerner’s rise to stardom and eventual demise.

“It’s a portrayal of her whole life—not only who she was as a person, but also who she was as an important popular American icon—and I would say her incredible rise to fame, given her very difficult and troubled background and upbringing,” conductor Steven Sloane said.

Courtesy of Stephanie Berger/BAM
blondes have more fun | Smith married an 89-year-old oil tycoon in 1991.

Born Vickie Lynn Hogan, Smith dropped out of her Texas high school and began working at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken, where she met her first husband, Billy Wayne Smith. At age 17, she married the 16-year-old Smith and soon gave birth to her first child, Daniel.

Bent on making it in show business, she quickly divorced her husband and moved to Houston with Daniel. After working at Walmart and stripping, Smith landed a Playboy cover and caught the attention of Paul Marciano, president of Guess. Shortly thereafter, Smith became the face of the clothing company, and Playboy named her 1993’s Playmate of the Year.

“She shot to the top, in a way, both as a cover girl, but also in her lifestyle,” Sloane said.

Smith became tabloid fodder soon after she married her second husband, 89-year-old oil mogul J. Howard Marshall II, whom she met while stripping in Houston. After Marshall died of pneumonia, Smith entered a seven-year-long legal battle with his 56-year-old son. Despite her legal woes, she continued to skyrocket to stardom as she secured a reality series on E! and became the spokesperson for the dietary supplement TrimSpa.

While the first half of the opera celebrates Smith’s success, the second half deals with her downward spiral. In September 2006, Smith gave birth to her second child, Dannielynn, whose delivery Smith released on camera and whose paternity was settled only after Smith’s death. Three days later, her older son died of a drug overdose. Then, five months after exchanging vows with Stern in a commitment ceremony, Smith was found dead in a hotel room. Her autopsy reported that she had consumed a lethal cocktail of methadone, benzos, and weight loss drugs.

Drugs, stripping, and swearing aren’t typical material for an opera, which BAM Executive Producer Joseph Melillo freely admits.

“Anyone who attends the performance would call the content controversial,” he said.

But opera expert Fred Plotkin, Journalism ’80 and contributor to classical music station WXQR, cautions against describing the subject matter in this way. 

“One person’s controversy is another person’s matter of fact,” Plotkin said.

Although opera might seem like an exalted medium to befit a tabloid queen, Plotkin has faith in Thomas and Turnage’s meeting of the high- and low-brow. 

“If the creators of the opera—the composer and the librettist—try to make the subject trashy, the opera fails,” Plotkin said. “But if you try to understand the tragedy, the humanity of the character ... then she’s not scandalous—she’s someone we care about. And because Anna Nicole Smith, in our memory, is trashy, I’m looking forward to discovering her in a different way with the opera.”

Rather than lampooning Smith, the opera aims to highlight the virtues of her life. Soprano Sarah Joy Miller, who plays the titular role, insists that the opera treats Smith with reverence.

“This opera is so much more than a parody of Anna Nicole’s demise,” Miller said in a behind-the-scenes video released by BAM.

While she’s not a dead ringer for Smith, the petite, blonde Miller looks the part and has the voice to back it up. In the video’s rehearsal footage, Miller assumes her character by desperately opening a bottle of pills and kneeling on the stage. She’s wearing a hot pink animal-print dress and a comically stuffed bra. 

“I’m not up there to imitate her, because then it’s sort of like we’re making fun of her,” Miller said. “And that’s not really the point.”

Instead, the point is to convey the realities of life.  

“Anna Nicole Smith was a human being and she struggled to survive,” Plotkin said. “She ran into the problems that many humans run into, and therefore is completely like us—like all of us. And I think that that is what’s going to come through in the opera. So it’s not extreme at all.”

While the subject matter might seem radical, Plotkin believes that it fits into the context of the history of opera. “Anna Nicole” parallels the storyline of Giuseppe Verdi’s classic, “La Traviata.”

“I think some people also feel jealous of her for her beauty, for her wealth, for her fame,” Plotkin said. “And Violetta in ‘La Traviata’ had beauty, wealth, and fame, and she died a tragic end.”

Like “Anna Nicole,” Verdi’s opera also had an initial shock factor.

“It was set in contemporary dress and audiences were being shown the hypocrisy of their attitudes by feeling superior to the character,” Plotkin said.

Although it riffs on the classics, “Anna Nicole” departs from traditional opera with its use of popular and jazz idioms. Bridging the classical and popular worlds, it forms a style that Sloane can’t quite describe.

“I don’t think it fits in any particular genre of operatic literature,” the conductor said. “I think it’s best described as musical theater.”

But he stresses that “Anna Nicole” is still considered an opera, in that it is totally composed: There is no speaking.

“It’s incredibly sophisticated and of the highest level of orchestration and libretto and drama,” Sloane said. “I think it’s quite far apart from other Broadway and popular musicals in that regard.”

It comes at no surprise, then, that BAM would produce such a progressive piece.

“BAM has always been cutting-edge,” Plotkin said.

Kicking off BAM’s Next Wave Festival, “Anna Nicole” continues a 31-year tradition of artistic risk-taking. In its first year, the festival featured three dance works and a Philip Glass opera, titled “Satyagraha.” In 2010, the festival presented “Powder Her Face,” an ambitious opera about a promiscuous woman in the 1960s that featured 25 naked men.

“The Next Wave Festival has a great legacy of being responsive to contemporary opera,” Melillo said. “So it’s not a foreign experience for us.”

In a tough financial climate, the creative team hopes “Anna Nicole” will generate new interest in opera.

“I do think this will reach a different kind of crowd,” Sloane said. “One of the important things about opera is to reach out to different audiences and to try to attract one and not just go by what people know or what people don’t know, and to find ways to bring people to the theater.”

Still, Sloane anticipates obstacles in opera’s future.

“I think that’s the challenge in America—to keep the love of this artform alive and thriving and growing,” he said.

While “Anna Nicole” is safe, the New York City Opera is expected to cancel the rest of its season if it does not raise $20 million by the end of the year, according to a recent New York Times article.

“I think, above all, it’s incredibly sad, because it is an irreplaceable opera company,” Plotkin said. “The company ... made the world realize that America is a wonderful, diverse operatic country. And that tradition, if it dies, will die with it.”

Plotkin said the fault lies with the New York City Opera’s board of directors.

“In America, there are many art companies where people join boards not because of their love and knowledge of the art form, but to make business contacts, advance social prominence,” he said.

While politicians have a hand in opera boards in Europe, American opera houses look to recruit private individuals with deep pockets. In the United States, major institutions can expect contributions valued at more than $100,000 from each board member, according to an article Plotkin published on WQXR’s website.

Ironically, the shuffle behind the New York City Opera’s potential last show echoes the onstage action of its latest image-conscious protagonist, who once told the Washington Post, “I love the paparazzi. They take pictures, and I just smile away. I’ve always liked attention. I didn’t get very much growing up, and I always wanted to be, you know, noticed.”

With the opera presenting an American allegory of its own, she has a pretty good shot.

“Anna Nicole” runs through Sept. 28 at BAM’s Howard Gilman Opera House.

lesley.thulin@columbiaspectator.com  |  @LesleyThulin

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