Let's start with a big question. What is an opera? A musical drama that is through-sung. Well, not necessarily. We consider Mozart's MAGIC FLUTE and Beethoven's FIDELIO to be operas and they have spoken dialogue. Are through-sung LES MISERABLES and MISS SAIGON operas? The differences between opera and musicals (isn't THE MAGIC FLUTE really a musical -- isn't that what "Singspiel" is?) are in the modes of presentation. Opera is an art form that uses a particular type of voice -- what we call a "legit" voice -- that can carry beautifully unamplified in a large theatre. The voice should be beautiful and expressive. There was a time when the voice was everything. It didn't matter how the singer looked or whether the singer could act. In our age of HD theatrical transmissions of opera and opera on DVD and YouTube, looks and acting abillity are almost as important as singing. One only has to look on opera singers' websites to see how important looks are (Wagnerian singers are more likely to be forgiven obesity and static stage presence). Opera also puts an emphasis on the orchestra and the relationship of voice and instrument. The conductor has far more power than he does in other forms of musical theatre.
I mention all this because the detractors of Mark Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas's ANNA NICOLE try to denigrate it by questioning its operatic credentials. This is in part because it is a crowd pleaser and much of contemporary opera is anything but crowd pleasing. My problem with much contemporary opera is that the musical language does not fit the drama. Many composers seem to be stuck in the style of Alban Berg -- a great style for Berg, but we are almost a century past that and many other musical influences have been added to the mix: minimalism, jazz, rock, the American songbook, for starters, not to mention influences from non-western cultures. Opera, of all forms, should reflect this eclecticism. And all elements -- including the music -- should be dramatic and theatrical. There is nothing wrong with writing an opera that a lot of people will enjoy hearing. John Adams has done that brilliantly over the last quarter century. And there is everything right about creating an opera about our era or the forces that have shaped our era. To my mind, short of John Adams's works, ANNA NICOLE is the most successful contemporary opera I have heard and seen.
Why Anna Nicole Smith as the central character in an opera? First, her life is operatic and Richard Thomas's libretto manages to poke fun at her and take her seriously at the same time. Second, she represents much that is wrong with contemporary western culture. Why should anyone care about this talentless, self-destructive woman? Why does anyone care about Paris Hilton? Anna Nicole Smith is one of the worst examples of our celebrity culture in which people can be famous simply for being famous. She is a grotesque exemplar of our consumer culture. Having bought her gigantic boobs, she married rich and bought everything else in sight including too many drugs and too much food. She is a real-life grotesque parody of our world. Thomas's raunchy libretto underscores all this the way his brilliant JERRY SPRINGER: THE OPERA did a decade ago. Mark Anthony Turnage's eclectic score which has everything from sweeping grand music, to parody of bel canto coloratura to jazz to allusions to The Pointer Sisters matches Thomas's libretto perfectly. Annas big arias do sound like Broadway -- what's wrong with that?
As director Peter Sellars has been a major collaborator with John Adams, so Richard Jones's production of ANNA NICOLE is a crucial aspect of the work. It seems perfect for the tone and substance of the libretto and score. It is comic when it needs to be but deeply moving in the second act. The design is wonderfully garish and encompasses the entire opera house. All the pictures on the walls have been covered over with a picture of Anna Nicole Smith. The auditorium has been transformed into a parody of itself. Picture of Anna Nicole cover the light sconces on the horseshoe balconies. The show curtain is a gaudy replica of the Royal Opera House curtain, but with AR emblazoned on it instead of ER. A picture of Anna Nicole covers the queen at the top of the proscenium.
Eva Maria Westbroek is perfect as Anna. This great diva could have coasted on her Wagner and Puccini roles, but chose to take on this vocaly and physically taxing role. She is never off stage. Even her costume changes and boob expansion take place on stage. This is a real star turn and Westbroek deserved the prolonged wild ovation she received at the end. The rest of the large supporting cast was fine and the orchestra under Antonio Pappano played the score lovingly.
A great occasion. I only hope audiences around the world get to experience ANNA NICOLE.
ANNA NICOLE. Royal Opera House. February 17, 2011.