Anna Nicole Opera Arrives at BAM For Its American Premiere

By Damian Fowler
18 Sep 2013

Sarah Joy Miller as Anna Nicole
Photo by Pari Dukovic
The librettist Richard Thomas, who is best known for Jerry Springer: The Opera, certainly brings a satirical touch to the story. The two-act opera is presented in 16 short scenes, with a chorus of tabloid hacks interviewing Anna Nicole and her entourage. If anything in this opera is derided as immoral, it is modern tabloid culture that is held up for ridicule, targeting "the crass, sleazy side of American culture," according to The New York Times.

But what makes this "comic horror story," as Turnage has called the work, really cohere is his virtuosic score. Since the 2011 premiere in London, the composer, who's been on hand for the rehearsals here in New York, has made small improvements and revisions.

"It's a fabulous piece on its own merits," said maestro Sloane, who described it as an opera (it's through-sung) that also draws on many voices from musical theatre. The sound world that Turnage has created is essentially tonal — a modernist score that also embraces jazz, blues and cabaret.

For Miller, the vocal writing helped shape her understanding of the character of Anna Nicole. "The score is both exhilarating and challenging. There are many jazz and musical theatre elements but the vocal lines of Anna's part are definitely written for an operatic voice," she said. "Because I am on stage for the entire show, and singing most of the time, the most difficult thing has been gauging my physical and vocal stamina. A lot of the vocal lines in the beginning are quite low and speech-like, which I think help to convey the character's personality with clarity."

In addition to the opera voices — which also includes tenor Robert Brubaker (who plays the oil billionaire J. Howard Marshall II), and baritone Rod Gilfry (who plays Anna Nicole's lawyer/lover) — Anna Nicole also features musical theatre singers, and actors, including James Barbour (playing Anna Nicole's father), Mary Testa (playing Anna Nicole's aunt and Stephen Wallem (who plays a sleazy trucker from Texas). All this adds up to a decadent circus that brings full-throated coloratura onto the same stage as seductively swooning waltzes and Kurt Weill-inspired cabaret.

"Anna Nicole is a distinctly American topic written by a British composer," said Sloane. "It's a work of the highest musical and dramatic quality. I believe it has found a place within the opera world."