Anna Nicole Smith opera opens for business

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Media caption,

Anna Nicole Smith is played by Dutch Soprano Eva Maria Westbroek

Anna Nicole Smith found fame and infamy in equal measure, as a 25-year-old Playboy model and the bride of an octogenarian multi-millionaire more than 60 years her senior.

Some said she was the ultimate gold-digger and for many she became a figure of fun.

When she died of an overdose in 2007 it made news around the world.

Now, her life is the basis of a new opera in London.

Three years ago, the Royal Opera House approached composer Mark-Anthony Turnage to write a new work.

Few composers would turn down the chance to play with Covent Garden's huge resources, but the small matter remained of finding a subject.

Image caption,
Alan Oke (centre) is the aged multi-millionaire oil tycoon J Howard Marshall

The Opera House had already said it favoured a contemporary story with a touch of humour but nothing really coalesced until Turnage met Richard Thomas, co-author of Jerry Springer: the Opera.

The two men discussed topics and eventually alighted on one they both found interesting: the short life and early death of Smith.

Elaine Padmore, Covent Garden's director of opera, liked the idea but knew a piece depicting actual named people needed handling with sensitivity.

"Much of Anna Nicole's life is in the public domain, there's masses of stuff on Google.

"But we've had lawyers working with us from the beginning about every aspect of the way it looks and the words we use."

Covent Garden was unusually wary about giving journalists and critics access to the project as it developed, but is confident the show is legally watertight.

All this contrasts with the high-profile poster campaign for the opera, showing the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek glamorously made up as the star.

'Tough life'

For now there are only six performances in London but international interest has been great and it is hoped the opera will be seen elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Turnage and Thomas have been doing their best to concentrate on writing a modern opera on a demanding theme aimed at a broad audience - a pretty tough commission even without the legal considerations.

"But it's an opera not a documentary," says Thomas.

"As soon as you put someone on stage and musicalise them, you're also mythologising them. Anna Nicole was already a totally larger-than-life personality."

Turnage, composer of Greek and The Silver Tassie, stresses the work is basically sympathetic to its central character.

"We don't trash her. People might think we're just taking the mickey out of her at Covent Garden. But we show she had a tough life and came from a very poor background".

Turnage says choosing a US topic had two big advantages.

"She was global in a way that, say, Jade Goody in Britain wasn't. Also, for me as a composer, it conjures up a sound world of American music. I'm a big jazz fan for instance and wanted to explore that."

"I've used Peter Erskine, a great jazz drummer, and the guitarist John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. There are references to jazz, to soul music, to Broadway musicals. It's quite a hybrid."

Astounded and overjoyed

So was his ambition to write an approachable score to bring in new audiences?

"It's more accessible than a lot of my works. And three-quarters of the piece is comic so there'd be no point writing very dour, spiky music," he explains.

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The opera has a run of just six performances

Thomas says the challenge was to shift from comedy to "the inevitable horrible and bleak ending".

He also thinks Smith on stage is a far more sympathetic and moving character than people will expect.

"A show like this has to have heart: it can't just be clever. I have a little manifesto for myself: 'If they laugh it's comedy. If they don't it's art. If they leave it's probably satire'."

At Thursday night's world premiere, the audience at Covent Garden had no problem laughing in the first half of the show.

The score feels American, but on the whole it's more evocative of Broadway and of film-music than the jazz Turnage mentions.

If Leonard Bernstein were still alive, he might be writing something like this.

Thomas's libretto is far less scabrous than his work for Jerry Springer: The Opera.

The surtitle screen in the Opera House is only occasionally troubled by four-letter words and the sex-scene mentioned in some early interviews stays hidden out of sight.

As for Smith, she surely would be astounded that her life is no longer soap-opera but opera, but also be overjoyed at the huge publicity.

Anna Nicole runs at the Royal Opera House until 4 March.

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