February 18, 2011 / 3:20 AM / 9 years ago

Anna Nicole Smith: big in life, now big in opera

* Music draws on Southern U.S. tunes

A picture of Anna Nicole Smith hangs over one of the cherubs which decorate the balconies at the Royal Opera House, on the opening night of the opera based on her life, in central London, February 17, 2011. The genteel world of opera collides with that of lurid headlines, strip clubs and Playboy on Thursday when a new work based on the life of the late Smith has its premiere at London's Royal Opera House. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

* Production includes lap dancing club

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - The tabloid life of Playboy centerfold Anna Nicole Smith, who bought big breasts, married an oil billionaire and gave birth on TV, has made it to the opera stage in London in a production true to operatic tradition.

Like her sexy operatic sisters Salome, Lulu and Manon, the Texan babe with the silicone monsters who becomes addicted to pain killers for consequent back troubles, dies just before the final curtain, of a drug overdose at age 39.

That’s when the cheering of the sold-out opening night audience erupted for the Royal Opera House production of a two-hour opera by librettist Richard Thomas, of “Jerry Springer: The Opera” fame, and British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage.

The staging included a tour-de-force performance by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna, wearing prosthetic breasts most of the time, and who is zipped up in a body bag as the lights go out.

“The way we look at it is Anna in this opera is a fabulous eccentric who fell on bad times,” Thomas told Reuters Television before the Thursday night premiere of the first of six performances.

The run has been sold out for weeks and, given the risque material, has been the talk of the London music scene and even Britain’s tabloids, which normally eschew opera.

The papers were particularly exercised about the prospect of fellatio being performed onstage as Anna attempts to wheedle a ranch from her octogenarian billionaire “paw paw,” J. Howard Marshall, who died a little more than a year after they married.

A crowd that gathers blocks out all view while the act supposedly is performed, leaving everything to the imagination.


The audience, however, got quite an eye and earful for its money. The tone was set with a special cerise-colored curtain topped with a gaudy cameo of Anna Nicole above the proscenium.

The production included an utterly believable re-creation of a lap-dancing club set in Smith’s native Texas and a riotous, cocaine-fueled onstage party that featured a guest appearance by Led Zeppelin bass guitarist John Paul Jones, a long-time friend of the composer.

Jones turning up as part of a jazz trio gives only a small clue to the depth and breadth of Turnage’s score for the 80-piece ROH orchestra, under the baton of conductor Antonio Pappano.

Turnage, 50 and writing his third opera, pulled from a huge range of styles, including a banjo-tinged tune reminiscent of Smith’s native American south.

There also was a witty ensemble for the furious billionaire Marshall’s offspring from previous marriages who inform Anna in no uncertain terms she’s not getting a dime of his money to a reworking of Sly and the Family Stone’s “We Are Family.”

“Some people say, ‘Why an opera?’ and actually she’s very much an opera figure,” Turnage said.

“It needs that big treatment...as soon as I started working on this I felt this, I could see her singing, Anna Nicole singing. That was very important to me, that I could musicalise her.”

The Royal Opera has been at pains to underscore that despite strong parallels to Smith’s life, the production is not, as the company’s press spokeswoman Ann Richards put it, a “bio-op.”

This stance may in part be designed to ward off spillover from the endless legal battle that arose from Smith’s efforts to claim part of Marshall’s estate, and litigation initiated by the attorney Howard Stern, who was her partner at the end.

Larry Birkhead, the father of Smith’s surviving child Dannielynn, told Reuters on Thursday her estate was considering legal options against the makers of the opera.

Eva-Maria Westbroek, who plays Anna Nicole, takes a curtain call after performing in the opening night of the opera based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith, at the Royal Opera House in central London, February 17, 2011. REUTERS/Andrew Winning

Thomas said there was “no intention to write a sort of defamatory-prone script,” while Turnage said he’d gone out of his way to give Stern, sung with immense finesse by Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, “beautiful music.”

The opera’s ultimate message, though, is delivered by the woman who wanted to be Marilyn Monroe and instead wound up an overweight addict and laughing-stock of reality television.

“I want to blow you all, blow you all, a kiss,” Anna sings near the opera’s opening, and again at its tragic conclusion.

Additional reporting by Nickie Omer; Editing by Matthew Jones

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