Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House Insight Evening, February 2011

This ‘Insight’ evening gave the audience some background to the forthcoming new opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage, and it was most informative and well presented. For a review of the first night, click here.

“What’s it like to see your picture all over the London Underground?” asked Elaine Padmore, director of opera, referring to the ubiquitous adverts featuring Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith. For anyone out of the loop on this, Anna Nicole was a model, stripper and sex symbol who wanted to be the next Marilyn Monroe. At one of her performances in Houston she met, and later married, J. Howard Marshall II, who was 89 at the time. As a young man he started a law career at Yale, later worked for the federal government, then left to join the oil industry, made a fortune and went into the energy business. Their marriage lasted fourteen months until his death in 1995 at the age of 90. There was then a legal row about his will (for an estate worth a billion pounds), which did not include Anna Nicole nor one of his sons. The son died in 2006, Anna Nicole died in 2007 (aged 39), and the case has now advanced to the Supreme Court.

“I think she really loved him”, answered Eva-Maria Westbroek, “[he] made her feel wonderful”. Gerald Finley will sing Anna Nicole’s third husband Howard K Stern (Howard Marshall was her second), and he commented that, “This is a feast of [Mark-Anthony Turnage’s] talent as a composer . . . he has such a strong rhythmic pulse”. Antonio Pappano, who will conduct it, commented on the balance of strings compared to the large complement of wind along with a variety of percussion and other instruments, such as an electric bass, not normally heard in an orchestra. He described the music in the first act as ‘zany’, while in Act 2 it gets ‘bigger’. Turnage has a strong background in jazz, and this ‘opera’ is being treated to some extent as a musical. Will it be like Kurt Weill? No one mentioned his name, but they did mention Zeitoper, and Krenek’s Johnny spielt auf. We will have to wait and see about the music, but the lyrics already intrigue me, and an example was given, reminding me of Cole Porter’s You’re the Top. The man in charge of the libretto is Richard Thomas, who received an Olivier Award for his score to Jerry Springer — The Opera. As Turnage said, the words come first and the music follows, but there has obviously been a strong interchange between Thomas and Turnage, and as Gerald Finley said, “After the first ten days of working there was a new script”.

When this opens on February 17 it all has to be entirely ready. Opera is not like theatre or musicals where you get a run at it first in a series of previews. In this case the ROH have used ‘workshops’ to play that role, and already one important change has been made. Originally they were going to abandon surtitles, because there’s some subtle ‘miking’ and they thought the singers would be readily heard. But as soon as the orchestra came into play they realised surtitles would be necessary, and though these won’t cover all the words, there will be enough. That’s a great relief, and I already look forward to reporting on it after the first night, and again later in the run. It sounds very exciting, and I believe tickets are now hard to come by.

There are six performances, running from February 17 to March 4 — for details, click here.

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