Mark-Anthony Turnage has been our hero for a while now. Besides his deep affinity with jazz as an alternative cradle of twentieth-century avant garde influences, not just a set of historical or geographical signposts, he turned directly to contemporary society and culture for his enduringly remarkable first opera Greek, and – over twenty years later – has done the same for the most anticipated Royal Opera House premiere in recent history: Anna Nicole. In a year in which he managed to casually slip a very blatant reworking of Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’ into a rather poe-faced Proms programme as the newly-commissioned Hammered Out, an event the potentially joyous cheekiness of which was undermined by the lack of imagination, humour or pop culture knowledge of pretty much everyone who might have been aware of it, his second provocative gesture was slightly more effective. The media attention that preceded the opera’s opening night was quite extraordinary, warranting coverage on the BBC news and mentions on the front pages of several of the key UK broadsheets. Sure, it didn’t really count as proper controversy, but an art-work in any medium has to go pretty far to court real, widespread controversy in the UK these days. However, just because the sense of moral indignation which some might have hoped for at the premiere of a government-subsidised production that turns the real life and recent death of a lap dancer turned reality TV star into an epic tragedy, might not be truly tenable in our society, it doesn’t mean that the production failed to be genuinely provocative both to opera-goers (who may or may not have seen it) and to the public in general.
For one thing, it sold out, and can therefore be said to have automatically ‘succeeded’ on some level at least. It divided critics quite predictably, receiving a good number of very good reviews and a fair few very bad ones. It’s attendant hype will have lifted for a while at least the very continuing existence of a genre called opera into the consciousness of the cultural mainstream, and in addition it will have made the not-obvious point that new opera is still being made, that some people do go to it and talk about it, and that it has the ability to address contemporary, popular issues such as celebrity culture. Its box office success at least suggests that 1) some people who don’t normally go to opera decided to go to it, 2) some people who don’t normally go to modern opera decided to make an exception for it, and 3) that the regular opera-goers, the people who the ROH relies on to pay the extortionate high-end ticket rates, were not repelled by it. So it is fair to conclude that an opera about contemporary, popular issues is something that people want to see.
Many opera fans, including the critics, we can imagine would simply roll their eyes at the attempts at controversy, at the gestures towards populism even, and ask: ‘But is it good?’. By this, they don’t generally mean ‘is it good for a new opera?’, but instead usually mean ‘was it worth coming to see this instead of Verdi or Mozart?’. And the answer, for these people, will always be no. I would argue, in this case especially, that it doesn’t matter. The mere fact of its existence has proved its worth. It captured the imagination of the media, drew in a massive audience, and gathered some frankly exceptional reviews. It was an experiment on the opera house’s part, perhaps, but these facts alone show that it paid off, suggesting many lessons can be learned from it for future productions. Moreover it was good! At least, I enjoyed it immensely, and look forward to getting a recording so that I can get to know the music. Like most contemporary music, it isn’t instantly accessible in the way that tonal music is. Whilst Turnage’s music has always been vibrant, often infectiously rhythmic, edgy and sometimes frightening, it has never been tuneful per se. The musical language of Anna Nicole is rendered appropriate and more accessible by a thorough employment of popular textures and timbres, rhythms and contours, topics which smack perfectly of superficiality, glamour and cliché, but melody and harmony remain complex and alienating, preventing humour from turning into innocuousness, or ugly parody becoming trite pastiche.
Some inherent ugliness was necessary to maintain the pitch of the opera as a whole. As much as Turnage initially argued that he was attracted to Anna Nicole as an ‘operatic’ character – tragic diva undone by men and society – the opera would not have worked, as the librettist Richard Thomas surely realised, in a traditionally tragic mode. There is too much at stake, too much to be explored. Most importantly, as in epic theatre, the audience must surely be implicated as part of the modern media machinations that allowed such a spectacular downfall to occur in the public eye. This is not like watching a Romantic opera in which the appropriately draconian social rules of an archaic society, or the particular selfishness of one powerful character, cause the heroine’s undoing. The camera-headed monsters which stalk Anna Nicole throughout the second act are, of course, us: twenty-first-century, media-connected Western society. Their eyes are our eyes. This factor sets into operation the kind of considerations that Brecht and his composer-collaborators Weill and Eisler had to wrestle with when making their operatic reforms – a way to counter the ‘narcotic’ effect of music. The results can easily be compared to these earlier works: the superficial, familiar, but oddly distorted flow of Turnage’s music, the bald, satirical, unnatural comedy of Thomas’s libretto, the chorus’s prologue and interjections, the montage structure and the alienating grotesqueness of much of the decadence depicted. The question posed is this: if this is the American Dream, then what the hell is wrong with America?
For this reason, a depiction of Anna Nicole which is too psychological, or an account of her story which is too emotionally-involved, would threaten this socio-political engagement. However, the opera’s approach to the subject isn’t as simple as that. The two acts differ quite extensively; the first, with its fantastic prologue and ‘reported’ frame, the sequence of rapid, narrated episodes and interviews, and the recurring invasion of Stern into what reads like a glossy, lurid magazine article on Anna’s rise to fame, relies more heavily on the apparent ‘vacuousness’ of pop tropes and the sickening interplay of these with the characters’ amoral reflections on lap dancing, breast augmentation and marrying for money. It is in this half that we get the most experimental of the profanities that the libretto treats us too. If we’ve learned anything from Anna Nicole, it’s that no-one really cares if you say ‘cuntalicious’ or ‘cum bucket’ onstage at the Royal Opera House, a fact that I think we should be making the most of. But the two things which push this outrageousness past the sensationalism-for-its-own-sake of Jerry Springer: The Opera (which, you’ll remember, did actually cause real controversy with its broadcast on BBC television) are firstly the musical language which is too elusive and dissonant to be reduced to pastiche and secondly the fact that all this glossy horror is drawn explicitly from real life.
The second act, with the invasion of the terrifying camera-heads, moves from reported past into episodes from the present of Anna’s height of fame. The music loses some of its more obvious pop textures, becomes more ‘operatic’ and also more violent. There is the suggestion at various times that Anna may be allowed an aria, some psychological catharsis, but this is repeatedly quashed by the mediation of Stern or Anna’s own inability to look at her life. So this isn’t the unravelled flip-side of the superficial grotesquerie of the first half, and this is important because the most horrific fact of Anna’s life is that she wasn’t even allowed to live out her private moments unmediated. She is never allowed to step out of the diegetic moment to sing her own sorrows, because her whole life was presented (by Stern?) for the pleasure of the viewing public. There is no grand tragic Anna beneath the surface, just as the music never truly escapes the popular gloss, because such a fantasy would undermine the real horror of her situation. Her husband dies, her dream of fortunes dies with him, she is in constant pain or in a constant drug haze, her son dies at a young age, she dies herself, and at no point do the cameras ever leave. The tumbling structure of the music amplifies this, allowing no pause and no respite. Tellingly, from her son’s alienating death song to her own almost immediate embalming in a body bag, she is allowed no reflection or catharsis. Stern and her mother package Daniel’s death in their terms, the chorus sing a brief eulogy for Anna before she’s even gone. Then, after her bathetic final words, we hear the quiet shuffling of the media swarm around her for one long minute before the lights go out. This is no elaborate diva death, but a cold anticlimax. We feel the potential for cathartic tragic grandeur, critics have bemoaned its absence, but we are denied it – the events are too close to home and we are all too guilty.
Its epic credentials would seem to be curtailed by its lack of a moralistic epilogue or equivalent, but the real reasons for this are far more alarming. The audience’s awareness of the legal implications of the opera’s presentation of the lawyer Howard K. Stern, implications which are constantly highlighted within the libretto itself, can be felt as a dark undercurrent beneath the entire work. Stern’s real-life presence, having been involved in and managed to overturn a number of lawsuits surrounding his supplying Anna with illegal amounts of prescription drugs, permeated the accompanying news stories as well overshadowing the opera itself. In some ways, this deep, unsettled aspect to Anna’s story had to be pushed even deeper than a dissonant undermining of the ‘superficial’ musical tropes. It remains inaudible but still felt in every gap in the story, every proviso or disclaimer carefully written into the libretto. It is felt most keenly in the blank absence of comment between Anna’s death and the curtain falling.
Turnage and Thomas, and indeed director Richard Jones, tell Anna’s story in ways which engage keenly with the kind of world she inhabited, or wanted to inhabit. Crudeness and superficiality are explored at a level of form, not just content. ‘Depth’ and psychological understanding is withheld or denied, the story is told with a hyperactive, sensationalist urgency, while the characters themselves are permitted to spin it to interpretative extremes. And the whole thing has been publicised as a sensational ‘event’, fascinated with the boundaries of taste and with glamour’s grotesque side. This is an opera being allowed to creatively explore its own subject without needing to first check a load of boxes pertaining to what an opera ‘should’ be, or what a ‘great’ opera ‘should’ aspire to. Many of the negative reviews, just like many of the clucking audience members, focus their agitation on this departure from what they feel the artists should provide them, in order to make the value judgements that they rely on. They might feel like any kind of musical ‘superficiality’ is inherently unwelcome in opera, or that an operatic subject which demands superficiality for its affekt is not worth production. They struggle with the difficulty of condemning a work as not being ‘great’ or a ‘masterpiece’ when it appears not to care about achieving either. This is the kind of provocation that I believe Anna Nicole should inspire, showing a success both commercial and critical while in many ways avoiding those qualities that operas, especially in the Royal Opera House, are arbitrarily ‘supposed’ to involve. If some of the audience members turn their noses up at this then I think this is a good thing. Driving out those people who hold certain purist beliefs at what ‘their’ art should entail allows such ‘exceptions’ as Anna Nicole to be normalised, and experimentation be made welcome.
The most provocative effect that the work had on me was in its relation to the establishment that produced it. First of all, with respect to what I saw as an opera with populist potential, that might attract some new audience, I looked at the environs of the ROH with fresh eyes, and I was more appalled than ever at that opulence and formality which still pertained to be inherently attached to opera as an art-form. The way that the opera house had transformed itself, covering up pictures and statues with faces of Anna Nicole and transforming the crest on the curtain came across as an acute kind of embarrassment, because to be honest there was very little between the gaudiness of the stage world and the gaudiness of the venue. It seemed particularly repellant that some people might judge the vacuousness of the stage subject while remaining oblivious to the otherworldly tackiness of the front of house and bar, and the design of the theatre itself. I would hope that this effect might have been felt by at least a portion of the rest of the audience as well, similar as it is to Brecht’s conception of the ‘operatic’ decadence depicted in The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny souring the taste of the similarly decadent opera audience.
Whether Anna Nicole ‘endures’ is, I believe, a moot point, but one which critics will unfortunately enjoy discussing. It need not be revived long into the future; if people in future decades don’t want to see or hear it then that’s that. It doesn’t in any way affect its current value. What should endure is the suggestion that an opera about current events or popular culture can be successful both critically and commercially, and that it is this kind of subject which propels the opera into a media ‘occurrence’. In five years time, we may want a similar but more recent story to reflect upon, rather than this same one revived. This shouldn’t indicate a failure of Turnage’s piece, it should suggest a success instead. However, one thing that I find problematic is the idea, posed by several commentators and Turnage himself, that Anna Nicole’s story was ‘inherently operatic’, moreso than others perhaps. I don’t know if this is just the kind of excuse that a slightly nervous composer comes up with in order to validate a potentially controversial idea to an automatically sceptical community. However, it would be a mistake if people were to think that certain scenarios are inherently more appropriate to opera than others, perhaps because they seem particularly ‘larger-than-life’ or they seem to fit closely to previous operatic clichés, famous works or other opera archetypes.
Anna Nicole happens to depict the unravelling of an unfortunate diva at the whim of a hostile society, it adheres closely to operatic stereotype in this respect, but that doesn’t mean that the story of the hapless and tragic celebrity is the only story from contemporary society which is inherently ‘appropriate’ for an operatic setting. This kind of thinking carries with it all the same assumptions of what opera ‘should’ show which might contribute to potential critical disappointment at how the work turned out. Composers should be eager to attempt all kinds of stories, as many as may be conceivable in non-musical theatre (more even), and through the requisite creativity, they can access new ways of creating musical drama whilst not pre-empting (or, as it may be, enabling) any tired comparison to ‘how opera should be’. For example, I am greatly anticipating the ENO premiere of Muhly’s Two Boys in June. The plot for this work, being centred mainly in bedrooms and in cyber-space, would seem to entail the utter opposite of what Turnage apparently validates as ‘operatic’. What needs to be kept in mind is, just because Anna Nicole managed to use a contemporary subject to mirror operatic archetypes, doesn’t mean it represents the only possible ‘operatic’ treatment of modern society. We shouldn’t think of it as one end of a catalogue of diva tragedies extant which meticulously navigate time and space (in other words, as part of a pre-existent ‘historical’ tradition), we should think of it instead as one possible topic of a new, populist modern opera, whose remit may eventually extend to every area of contemporary life.