Despite working just around the corner in Covent Garden, I struggle to find a clear enough phone signal during the opening moments of my chat with Richard Thomas. I can only think to blame the old, thick walls of the famous Royal Opera House, where Thomas is currently waiting to see the dress rehearsal for the London revival of Anna Nicole, the controversial opera that he originally penned the libretto for in 2011. But despite his status as the pop-culture king of modern opera (he also wrote, and won an Olivier Award, for the sensational Jerry Springer: The Opera, which has played all over the world), Thomas is swift to emphasise that he cut his teeth in comedy the old fashioned way: by visiting the Edinburgh Fringe.
“I started out as a double act – sort of a comedy music act – way back when in the 80s and early 90s, and I went to the Edinburgh fringe about 10 or 11 times consecutively,” Thomas tells me, not quite solid on the numbers in his now rather distant past. “I hitchhiked up to Edinburgh with a guitar and I slept rough for a couple of days, before getting the only job I’ve ever had as a lighting person. Basically I switched the main light off and on. I was 16 at the time – probably not even that – and in return for doing that I stayed in their slum. Ah the memories!” he laughs. Thomas feels that although the culture of the Fringe itself has changed since then, the Free Fringe has done a lot to revive and retain the original spirit. “Every year I’d go to Edinburgh I’d always see something amazing that changed my life, and the joy of the Fringe is that you can be uncompromising, and there’s some kind of pure, interesting form of expression that is created regardless of the outcome. That’s quite liberating. So I hope I’ve always retained a bit of that.” Indeed, Thomas still feels that kind of attitude and experience-base is an asset to any writer.
Following on from his ten-year touring career as one half of a musical double-act (which ultimately “fell to pieces”), Thomas decided to begin writing more seriously, starting with Tourette’s Diva, a “deeply Fringe show” which the Guardian reviewed as a “foul-mouthed work,” while already noting that “composer and librettist Richard Thomas is enamoured of both the image of opera – the extravagant gestures, heightened emotions, ladies with proclivities to suicide – and the playground humour: incessant swearing, provocations and obscene insults”. It is a duality that still pervades his work: the ability to present a modern tale with contemporary humour and relevant pathos, while also reflecting the grand themes and stylistic choices of the medium. “Even though I thought it was a contemporary tale when I first wrote it, if you look at the actual themes, they were as redolent in the nineteenth century courts of Vienna. If you took Anna Nicole and her lawyer, and the oil billionaire, and the inheritance fight in the courts, and put ‘Baron’ or ‘Countess’ in there, you could have set this whole story in Viennese society. Or Edwardian London. Apart from – of course – the breast enhancement surgery,” he clarifies.
Thomas was first approached by opera composer Mark-Anthony Turnage as a result of his monumental success with Jerry Springer: The Opera. Although at first he claims he “wasn’t that fussed about writing for opera” he suggested the story of Anna Nicole Smith – the former playboy model who reached the Supreme Court in a battle over her 80-year-old husband’s vast estate, before dying of a drug overdose and leaving a complex legal battle of her own in her wake. “I never thought they’d accept that idea, so when they said yes I thought it was hilarious,” Thomas explains. He has always been drawn to exploring stories that other people tend to dismiss as suitable material, and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. “I tend to get a lot of ‘I never knew it would be so funny and so moving’, which is gratifying,” he notes, perhaps as a result of the universal themes that the show explores. “On the very simplest level, it’s about a single mum trying to do the best for her kid. That’s how I chose to look at it. It’s not like a documentary – it’s just a common story. And of course it’s a variation on the themes of ‘beware what you wish for’, and ‘more tears shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers’. Once I tapped into that, I felt like we were on the right path.”
Perhaps, I suggest, contemporary operas like Anna Nicole will open the door to more comedy sneaking into the hallowed walls of the operatic establishment? “I’m doing the lyrics for Made In Dagenham, and we have a six-week preview period of seven shows a week, but for an opera you just have six shows and that’s it. With the same evaluation.” Luckily for us, while Thomas may be relatively new to the opera, he’s certainly put in his time in comedy terms. His dedication to his Fringe roots, as well as his boldness in merging forms, is leading to the creation of unexpectedly brave and unique work across the board. “I traipsed the clubs of Britain, Europe and America for ten years. I know what it’s like to be booed off stage; I’ve had cans of beer thrown at me, I’ve been spat at and punched. I know what comedy is in my bones. And I love it. I think it’s one of the great, noble art forms, but it’s hard to pull off in the opera house. But in this show we have, so it’s cool…”
Anna Nicole runs at the Royal Opera House until 24 September. For more information and tickets, visit the ROH’s website.
Photo (c) ROH. Photographer: Bill Cooper