Anna Nicole, an opera by Mark-Anthony Turnage about Anna Nicole Smith that just finished a two-week run at the New York City Opera (R.I.P.), had a ton of shock factors. There was the English libretto sung with Texan drawls, a scene set at a gentleman’s club complete with poles and dancers, and a whole choral number about getting a boob job. The facet of the experience that most shocked me, though, was how little I was shocked.
The two most scandalous scenes included the gentlemen’s club and a simulation of oral sex. I wish I could say it was the first time I had seen either of those in an opera, but that wouldn't be true: the new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera features a topless stripper, while Luc Bondy caused an uproar when he included a simulation of oral sex in his production of Puccini’s Tosca.
The title character of Tosca was, herself, a tempestuous performer, much like Smith. Likewise, the title character of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was a geisha, another sexualized performer.
Smith does not seem so undeserving an operatic heroine when you compare her to Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, which just had its 160th anniversary. Violetta openly works as a prostitute. In a famous first-act duet with Alfredo, she offers him a white rose, telling him to return to her when it wilts. While that's now seen as a romantic gesture, a dirty detail is largely forgotten: prostitutes wore white roses when they were on their period, to signal to men that they were not taking customers.
Manon in Massenet’s Manon Lescaut betrays and leaves her love for a richer man. Some believe that the character Mimi in Puccini’s beloved La Bohème is also a prostitute. A second character from La Bohème, Musetta, is first seen out with an old, rich gentleman, and she makes it clear that she is only with him for his money. Anna Nicole was simply following tradition.
That is not to say there was nothing galling about the show. The specific words that were sung were outrageous. The opera is filled with unprintable lines and a whole new vocabulary of illicit language, the creativity and strangeness of which is only equaled by Urban Dictionary. Playing Smith, Sarah Joy Miller dropped more f-bombs than Ben Affleck did in Argo. If you ever wondered what all seven dirty words sound like in operatic form, you should listen to a recording of Anna Nicole.
But even then, one must contextualize older operas — especially Mozart. The Marriage of Figaro makes scores of inappropriate jokes, as the show's conflict centers on an old count trying to reinstate the droit du seigneur. The libretto of Così Fan Tutte is littered with the word "sospirar," which is now translated literally as "to sigh," but, in its time, implied, "to have sex." And don’t even get me started on Don Giovanni’s catalog aria. When news first broke that there would be an opera about Smith, the classical world was in disbelief. This is the person we chose to honor with one of art's highest forms? Yet Smith represents our generation's excesses and quiet desires in their most extreme form, making her the perfect subject for an opera.
Before her early death, the public got to see quite a lot of Smith. We watched her in the tabloids and magazines, and on her own reality show. In an odd way, I looked up to her. I wasn’t about to pose nude and marry and 80-year-old billionaire, but I admired how unashamed she was of herself as a woman.
In writing, on screen, and in the opera, men have been openly and bawdily discussing sex and sexuality, as well as employing sophomoric humor, for centuries. It was about time for a woman to do the same. She wasn't a pioneer, but she represented a paradigm shift. As Smith became louder, it became the norm for women, as well as men, to discuss sexuality openly on any public platform. That's one of the reasons Smith was so fascinating to us.
As liberating as Smith's character was, the opera reminds us that her drive had a darker side. Smith begged for fame. She paved the way for a Kardashian generation in which everyone believes they can — and should — be a household name and have glamorous scores of paparazzi following their every move. Smith was the extreme case of this, and many would argue that she died because of it. She was ripe for tragedy.
Opera has always erred on the side of the extreme. It is one of an artist’s duties to represent their contemporary culture in its most exemplary instantiations. Turnage did just that by retelling the story of Smith, the titan of overexposure and lust for fame. His subject matter may seem unorthodox, but it is both timely and timeless.