There’s nothing particularly scandalous about Anna Nicole–the opera, anyway. Though the subject of much hushed titillation in the press (Oh My GAWD, They Made An Opera Of That?), the Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas biographical work on the life of the server, stripper, model, actress, and digger-of-gold par excellence traffics some very well-traveled roads. A word-frequency index of articles covering the American premiere at BAM last Tuesday would likely find “provocative”, “audacious” and “breasts” right up there with “and”, “but” and “the”. And granted, there is a section in which a plastic surgeon details the merits of various cup-sizes–and the diva’s main Act One aria she delivers whilst clinging to a stripper pole. There are firearms and a well-hidden blowjob. There is swearing (“F*ck!”) and a dead child to boot.
But opera’s sexy-dancing cherry was popped way back in 1905 with the Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome. And unlike that infamous opera by Strauss, Anna Nicole does not at any point feature the prima donna getting freaky with a severed head. The drug-induced passing of her young son Danny is admittedly shocking, but pales in comparison to the deliberate river-drowning of an infant in Janáček’s Jenufa. And if you’re looking for a lower-class heroine who uses sex to try to get what she wants, look no further than Carmen, La Traviata, or any of about half of the operas written in the 19th century. Indeed, a brief survey of the works presented regularly at the world’s major houses reads like a comprehensive guide to debauchery, violence, cruelty, passion and greed. Nor is it so strange that the opera takes as its subject something recently in the news —John Adams has been doing it for years, with operas like Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. So if you’re surprised to hear there’s an opera about a sexy, scandalous and low-brow diva: welcome to opera—the water’s fine. // Patrick Barrett