The Anna Nicole Smith Opera Is a Piece of Terrible Garbage
Photos by Stephanie Berger
The New York City Opera has been around for 70 years, but it's currently in some dire financial straits. If the opera doesn't raise $7 million dollars by the end of the month it won’t be able to present three scheduled productions: Endimione, Bluebeards’s Castle, or The Marriage of Figaro. Considering there's only got four days to go, and the Kickstarter is clocking in at $126,078, it’s doubtful this will happen. Regardless of your feelings on ladies in Viking helmets, it's ostensibly important to hold on to cultural institutions like this, and you should probably support them so that rich old people can keep seeing Tristan und Isolde—do that right here.
Point is, the opera is broke, and if the board of directors knows one thing, it’s that the gays of New York are the only demographic that can pull them from the flames. With that in mind, the New York City Opera has taken dead aim on us by running a biographical opera of Anna Nicole Smith, unimaginatively named Anna Nicole.
For a bit of personal context, I'm gay, and Anna was as constant in my young life as the homeless lady in the alley behind my family’s puppy store—she was always fucking there. I grew up in Florida, and the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino where Anna overdosed was just a quick drive from my mom’s house. I found out about her death from my prep school music teacher, while I was stage managing my school’s production of Cats—roll with it, I was a theater kid. She stopped rehearsals, stood up, and screamed, “Anna Nicole is dead!” We all knew our lives were changed forever. Anna’s body was interned at a medical examiner’s office near my grocery store, making it impossible to buy milk without getting stuck in the traffic caused by a thousand news network vans. It was fantastic!
When you’re 16, everything looks like shit. Anna dying next to my house made life seem like it could be extraordinary. I immediately read everything Anna-related I could get my hands on. She seemed otherworldly, not that different from Jesus, St. Anthony, or the other icons I'd learned about at Catholic school. I even prayed to Anna when I wanted to suck a classmate’s peen, or needed an older kid to buy me alcohol. Some people believe in Jesus, but I believed in Anna Nicole Smith.
Last week, when the opera opened to the public in New York, it seemed like Anna would finally get the respect she deserves. Originally staged by Britain’s Royal Opera Company, with a score composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage and a libretto by Richard Thomas, the opera could have been a work of high art that actually takes her troubled life seriously. I was excited, so I headed to the Brooklyn Academy of Music to find out if gay opera fans could really save the New York City Opera, and if gay opera could really understand the hot, pill-popping mess that was Anna Nicole Smith.
Considering this is an opera about a woman who spent a large portion of her life farting on national television, I thought it would be appropriate if I went in my work clothes. Because I work from home, that means cutoffs and a stained t-shirt. When I arrived, all the rich gays were wearing suits, and all the uptown grannies were rocking sparkly silver dresses. I saw BAM’s donors heading to a VIP area outfitted with tacky pink couches in honor of Anna, and an old lady several rows ahead of me ogled the stage’s bright pink curtain, which was adorned with gigantic paintings of body builders. Everyone gets it! I thought.
I thought I would find some other true Anna fans to hang out with, but it was all opera people. In the men’s bathroom line, all the guys stopped to say hi to each other—it was unclear if they knew each other from last year’s staging of Moses in Egypt, or from giving handies at a local gay bar, but I could only assume they’d all blown each other at some point.
I headed back to my seat in the press section, which unfortunately smelled like testicles and cheese (opera critics are obese and sweat a lot). The second the lights dimmed and the pink curtain rose on a row of news reporters outside a fried chicken restaurant, I forgot all about the nut scent and the fat opera snots. I was at home.
“Anna Nicole! Anna Nicole!” the reporters sang-shouted, as a ghostly voice boomed through the theater’s PA: “Once upon a time, there was a girl who wanted to be Marilyn Monroe.” Right then, a large gold chicken spun around, revealing a smiling, skinny blonde who looked as dumb as a stone. “This actually happened,” the reporters sang.
They get her! I thought. They get Anna Nicole Smith!
Then the predictable Anna Nicole jokes began, and the opera's potential went down the toilet. “A beauty wannabe gone from the get go,” they called Anna, ignoring the fact that she’d originally gotten famous for her work as a beautiful supermodel for Guess jeans. The opera introduced Anna’s notorious cohorts and friends: her abusive mother, her creepy lawyer Howard, and her cousin Shelly, who the chorus gave a Homeric epitaph: “Cousin Shelly, five kids and no teeth.” This led to an awful musical number where Shelly flashed people for no reason, while the chorus sang, “Put those away!”
I have no problem laughing at Anna—she was hysterical. But these jokes fell flat, portraying Anna’s entourage as flat, one-dimensional subjects. A wasted opportunity, considering that Anna openly discussed a creeping suspicion that her relatives were using her for fame and money, and also because Shelly’s meth-addled rendition of “Oh, Noel” on the Anna Nicole Smith Show’s Christmas Episode is one of the funniest events in the history of television.
Right as I was ready to bolt from the theater, the authors showed a touch of empathy: Anna appeared on stage with her new boobs and climbed a pole. In the purple light, alone on stage, she gripped the pole and sang about her dreams: “This is my time. This is my dream.” The singer couldn’t pole dance for her life, but she expressed exactly why Anna managed to channel her 15 minutes of supermodel fame into two decades of tabloids, reality television, and diet pill commercials: Anna was desperate to leave her shitty little town. As she later sings to her young son as he hands her a pill: “I’m gonna rape the goddamn American dream.”
The second act stopped treating Anna with any degree of sympathy and spent an hour on stupid fat jokes and half-baked existentialist ramblings. After a party set to the refrain, “Party till the drug raid!” J. Howard dies, and Anna is taken in by a creepy lawyer named Howard. In real life, Howard was a dorky Jewish guy who fell in love with Anna and quit his job as an attorney to sleep on her couch for nearly a decade, but in the opera he gives Anna pills and manipulates her into crazy publicity stunts, such as having a baby.
There’s also an obligatory Larry King episode where Anna talks about vomiting on Dolly Parton’s shoes. Again, another missed opportunity. Anna was a regular on the show, and said crazy shit to Larry all the time. What made those appearances interesting was that she also made heartfelt, earnest statements about her life. In one particularly poignant episode, Larry King asked Anna why Marilyn Monroe was her idol.
“I just feel a connection with her,” Anna said.
“Do you feel the sadness of her life?”
“Yes. I just completely feel what she went through.”
The opera skips the more scandalous aspects of Anna’s final years. There is no "Trimpspa, baby!" musical number. In place of showing Anna flirting with her lesbian assistant or wearing clown makeup while high and pregnant, the events are covered in a monologue. Instead, we see Anna in a living room popping pills and discussing existentialism as people dressed like cameras take photographs of her. Bo-rrrring!
The opera ends on a dark note: Anna in a body bag popping pills and singing a few more lines about existentialism: “I wanted more. I wanna blow you all. I wanna blow you all… a kiss.” During the final number, as Anna dies, her mother walks onstage, looks toward the audience, and sagely murmurs that “shit happens, and then you die.” Working as a stripper, marrying a billionaire, becoming one of the world’s most famous Playboy models, staring on a reality show, losing your one son while in the hospital giving birth to your second child, and having your battle for your husband’s money go to the Supreme Court isn’t just “shit happening.”
It’s true Anna lived a dark life, but it’s wrong to dismiss her as a joke or someone who was just floating through like like a Soviet prostitute in a Russian socialist realist novel. She came from a sad background and was desperate for our love and attention, and (without any actual talent) she managed to stay relevant longer than most Oscar winners.
The real tragedy of Anna’s young death is she never got to use Twitter. But Anna wouldn’t have been able to stay relevant if we didn’t love her too. Anna Nicole is the only City Opera production to sell well this season. Anna Nicole died six years ago, and we’re still talking about her. We’ve forgotten Octomom and Heidi Montag, but in pop culture, Anna Nicole is as alive as Miley Cyrus, and it’s an obscenity to say we only love her as a joke.
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