Guest post by Madison Teuscher
I was surprised when I learned that Anna Nicole Smith’s story had been turned into an opera. Smith was a celebrity most known for being a Playboy model and marrying a man 60 years older than her—I thought there was no way her story would be suited to the high-brow opera stage. However, I soon discovered that Anna’s story is perfect for opera—it is dramatic, full of conflict and disagreement, and Anna’s eccentric personality makes for a perfect starring diva. While her story may seem frivolous and silly, it actually explores much deeper topics relating to women, madness, and relationships with men of power.
The opera, titled Anna Nicole, was written in 2011 by Mark-Anthony Turnage, and the libretto (the words of the opera), was written by Richard Thomas. This dramatic tale is both emotionally hard-hitting and over-the-top and gaudy. This is certainly not an opera to bring your grandma to; it is vulgar and crass, but also full of nuance and tenderness. The premiere of the two-act opera garnered a big publicity stir. Some reviews praised it as “brilliant, dangerous, but exhilarating”, but many had harsh criticism for the opera, saying it was “lacking in real tunes and real drama and a piece of terrible garbage”. Why is the story of a stripper, Playboy model, and sex symbol so disconcerting?
Perhaps this discomfort can be explained by the nature of Anna Nicole’s story: her rags-to-riches tale is unnerving to middle-class culture because it’s all about the rules of class and economic mobility. The American class system is precarious, and a challenge to its stability threatens the status quo. Anna Nicole’s “white trash” image hardly seems an appropriate topic for the opera stage, however, Turnage navigates this with his characteristic jazz and modern blend to create a vibrant soundscape that challenges both style and class divisions. Richard Thomas’s raunchy and raw libretto undergirds the eccentric score, making for a fast-paced, emotionally hard-hitting production that dares to challenge the class system.
From the moment Anna first enters, she is surrounded by news reporters, chorus singers doting over her needs and hanging on her every word, and cameras attached to dancers’ heads, seeming to float across the stage and linger behind Anna’s path. It is clear that Anna is not her own person; with little privacy or agency, she must always remain poised for the public. Even before her rise to fame, there are thousands of eyes everywhere, watching and scrutinizing her every move. During the first act, Anna eats up the attention and plays with the reporters’ questions, and they are enamored by her simple charm.
In the beginning of the opera, Anna has yet to face the media backlash for her class standing, however, this changes dramatically with the progression of the opera and her life. As Anna Nicole’s life progresses, she is heavily ridiculed for her behavior. The constant presence of the camera-dancers provides a backdrop for the duality of the media and their eventual disgust with Smith. While the media may adore her at the beginning of her career, she will just as quickly be rejected by the very sources that praised her.
Why are female celebrities judged so harshly? The unspoken set of societal rules place high value on the bodily capital of these celebrities. Just as financial capital is a measure by which value can be judged, bodily capital is a less tangible, but equally fraught source of power. As a national sex symbol, Anna Nicole Smith was certainly high in bodily capital. However, this is one form of value that cannot be “cashed in.” This demonstrates the predicament that the cultural narrative provides: women are restricted to accessing capital that is afforded low value in mainstream culture. The rising fame of Anna Nicole Smith was certainly a hot-button issue, and throughout the second act of Anna Nicole, Turnage begins to reveal the controversy surrounding, and collapse of, Anna Nicole Smith.
The second act of Anna Nicole centers on the downfall of Anna Nicole Smith and her increasing dependence on drugs and alcohol due to intense media pressure and the collapse of her modeling career. The increased presence of camera-dancers and reliance on drugs creates a picture of the crisis that Anna is falling into, and the death of her oil tycoon husband J. Howard Marshall only adds to the precariousness of her psyche. Anna Nicole Smith is also famous for her weight gain; in the second act of the opera, Anna is no longer the sexual ideal that was featured in numerous high-profile advertising campaigns and magazine covers, but is branded “a pig, a cow, an embarrassment”. The same media that praised Smith for showcasing a positive physical alternative to the hyper-thin models of the 1990s then ridiculed her for straying from the normative boundaries of feminine beauty,and portrayed her as a ridiculous obscenity. Anna Nicole only perpetuated the media’s rage when she was seemingly unembarrassed by these physical changes; she still made public appearances and refused to stop enjoying her fame.
Why is a confident woman so threatening? Ultimately, it is because our society has created strict class boundaries, and anyone who chooses to stray from them is viewed negatively. Anna Nicole Smith was seen as a “white trash” girl who pulled herself up by her bootstraps, but as soon as her body strayed from the normative standard of beauty, she was ridiculed. The opera portrays the nuance of Anna Nicole’s story beautifully, and it is a wonderful and entertaining show. Perhaps if stories like this were told more often within the media and the arts, we would begin to see a societal shift, and the media would be more forgiving to the Anna Nicoles of the world.