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'Anna Nicole' Brings Sex And Drugs To The Opera

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'Anna Nicole' Brings Sex And Drugs To The Opera

'Anna Nicole' Brings Sex And Drugs To The Opera

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The last night of any production at London's Royal Opera House in Covent Garden is a big, big deal. Tomorrow's performance, though, is rather different from most. A packed house will hear the final notes of the opera, "Anna Nicole." And American opera houses are following its fortunes with interest, to see if it will work on this side of the pond.

NPR's Phil Reeves, has this story.

PHILIP REEVES: Anna Nicole Smith had a life full of surprises. Now, in her death, there's another one. She has an opera. Not a soap opera, a real opera at one of the world's most prestigious opera houses.

Mr. MATT WOLF (Theater Critic, International Herald Tribune): Covent Garden is seen to be the sort of bastion of the elite doing a very sort of circumscribed canon of work.

REEVES: Matt Wolf is a theater critic for the International Herald Tribune.

Mr. WOLF: Obviously the great Puccini, Verdi, Mozart, Handel operas with international superstars, and prices out of reach to all but a select few. Here's an opera that has a fine cast but it doesn't have superstars. And more importantly, it's on a topic that I dont think anyone ever thought they would see staged at the Royal Opera.

REEVES: The opera tells the life story of Anna Nicole Smith, a waitress who became a Playboy centerfold, a pole dancer, an actress, and a wife. She famously married the billionaire oil tycoon J Howard Marshall. He was 89 at the time. She was 26. He died. She fought a long, draining legal battle over his money.

(Soundbite of opera, "Anna Nicole")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) And "Larry King Live" tonight, tonight I get Anna Nicole Smith, the model, the actress and former Playmate of the Year

REEVES: The tabloid media lapped it all up. They went on lapping it up, as she became the star of her own reality TV show, went off the rails and died of an accidental drug overdose at just 39.

Mr. RICHARD THOMAS (Librettist): I think its like every rags-to-riches success story and every cautionary tale shoved into a blender, with two bottles of tequila and three bags of sugar, and whooshed up and served over two hours.

REEVES: Richard Thomas wrote the words for "Anna Nicole." He's ventured into waters like this before with "Jerry Springer: The Opera."

Some have portrayed Anna Nicole Smith as a gold digger destroyed by her own greed. Mark-Anthony Turnage, who composed the music, sees her as far more complex than that.

Mr. MARK-ANTHONY TURNAGE (Composer): Hopefully you'll fall in love with her and youre very sad when all the events turn wrong for her. So I hope people are sympathetic. I mean weve failed in a way if youre not - if you come out of there thinking: Oh, shes just a cartoon character, shes a bit of an idiot, then weve totally failed.

(Soundbite of opera, "Anna Nicole")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Now let's get serious. This has taken its toll

REEVES: This production looks like an attempt to attract a new younger audience to opera. The six performances in London of "Anna Nicole" have sold out, so it seems to have worked.

Thomas, again.

Mr. THOMAS: And I think this has definitely attracted a new crowd. With this, I would imagine 30 to 40 percent would never have been to The Royal Opera.

REEVES: Thomas says his priority was just to tell an unusual human story.

Mr. THOMAS: I love subjects which are easily dismissed. Most people would dismiss the whole story of Anna Nicole as, you know, oh, this is fodder. But I quite like those, because along the way you find some lovely comedic gems. And hopefully, you stumble across some fantastic sort of universal themes and truths.

(Soundbite of opera, "Anna Nicole")

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Hey

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Hey.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Do you want to live forever?

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) Yes.

REEVES: Some of the language is certainly true to life. To get into this show, you must be 16 or over. Thomas and Turnage concede there are words in their opera you don't usually hear at the Royal Opera House.

Mr. THOMAS: Twenty F-words.

Mr. TURNAGE: Yeah.

Mr. THOMAS: One C-word, three bastardizations of the C-word

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. THOMAS: which Ive invented.

(Soundbite of street sounds)

REEVES: As they filed out from a recent performance of "Anna Nicole," audience members had mixed feelings.

Mr. STEVE TAYLOR: Excellent and really beautiful combination of comedy turning to tragedy. You know, in that wonderful theatrical mix.

Mr. RAPHAE MANOUKIAN: It's more of a bad musical, not even an opera. There was no music to start with. There was just cacophony - just a lot of sounds.

REEVES: That's Steve Taylor and Raphae Manoukian.

Matt Wolf of the International Herald Tribune says there are some stunning moments.

Mr. WOLF: The single best visual moment in it was this huge mattress which seems to take over the entire stage. The implication being that Anna Nicole's entire life now is defined by two things - one, a bed; and secondly, things that are big her breasts, the financial assets of her octogenarian husband, who quickly dies. Everything about her is big, big, big, bed, bed, bed, and that I thought worked very well.

REEVES: But did Wolf end up feeling sympathy for Anna Nicole?

Mr. WOLF: I think you go away thinking God, shes pathetic and its all very sad. And it is very sad and she was pathetic. But was she tragic? Im not sure. I think the jury is out on that.

(Soundbite of opera, "Anna Nicole")

CHORUS: Anna. Anna. Anna Nicole. Anna. Anna. Anna Nicole.

REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.

MONTAGNE: And that piece on the opera, "Anna Nicole," was compiled with reporting by NPR's London producer, Katie Bilboa.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Oh, it's so much more classy to hear Anna Nicole discussed in an English accent, dont you think?

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