In 1994, the ever-classy New York magazine caused a bit of a stir as it adorned news stands with a rather tasteless cover image. The photograph was of Anna Nicole Smith – model, socialite, playmate or gold-digger, depending on who you ask – sitting down with legs akimbo. Fortunately, some of the subject’s dignity was protected by a large bag of crisps balanced in front of her crotch, but a lot more was lost through the caption ‘White Trash Nation’. The image was allegedly taken during a break in the shoot, and the creative team at the magazine was criticised for casting a vicious, candid and exploitative eye on Smith’s rise to fame.
Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole echoes New York magazine’s penchant for slut-shaming behind a mask of all-American cultural commentary, as staccato syllables are employed to spell out swear words and insults such as “trailer trash” are earnestly trilled. First premièring four years after the celebrity died from an overdose, the work’s sleazy gaze focuses right down the cleavage of this controversial figure, mocking the narrative of her life and holding her up as little more than a blinkered victim of the American dream.
Sure, soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek is talented, but her character sure as hell ain’t. Smith’s operatic Texan drawl is a joke in itself – and would you believe she’s never heard of Icarus? Anna Nicole the opera is less of a balanced biography of Smith’s life, and more of an observation on how the media cashes in on caricature. But this premise is flimsy: while a chorus of conservative newsreaders, split neatly into men and women, opine that “history repeats itself / first time as tragedy, second as farce”, this insensitive interpretation of Smith’s life has a tangled relationship with satire and, ultimately, comes across as just another mechanism for making a quick buck out of an ill-informed quest for fame, love and fortune.
While the tone of this piece may verge on the hypocritical, Miriam Buether’s set designs conspire with Nicky Gillibrand’s costumes to provide a brilliantly kitsch backdrop. The bright pink curtains lift to reveal a plasticine world populated by giant nodding dogs, colossal mattresses, flying chairs and a toilet. In true pop art fashion, as much colour is splashed over the mundane chicken joints and out-in-the-sticks hometowns as the wedding ceremonies, gentlemen’s bars and TV talk shows – yet beyond a colour palette that could’ve been nicked from CBeebies lurks a troubling, shadowy atmosphere. With a similar eagerness to push beyond the façade, Gillibrand’s work brings new shades to a vibrant, consumerist palette. In one particularly sinister scene, a trio of fiercely styled fashion professionals makes way for a macabre procession of Walmart workers, whose blue pinafores work in a sinister dialogue with identical, expressionless masks.
There’s plenty of space for satire here, but Turnage’s interpretation is as cold as the materialist world it presents. In its most generous moments, Anna Nicole presents its tragic heroine as a naïve floozie with a laughable ambition; at its worst, Smith is a sexual predator out to “rape that goddamn American dream, […] tear it open and lick up the cream”. Falling into the traps it tries to lay down, Anna Nicole is a clumsy satire on objectification that, despite its attempts to expose the damaging glare of the media, can’t quite take its eyes off Smith.
Anna Nicole is playing at the Royal Opera House until 24 September. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Opera House website.
Photo by Royal Opera House and Cooper.