Mika xL Column 12, April
The Sacrifice of Anna Nicole
In life certain things happen which make you realise that no one can or should exist on their own.
I was late. Traffic in London on this February night, had brought the city to a standstill. It was the premiere of the highly anticipated Anna Nicole Opera at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden. I abandoned my taxi and ran. A red carpet greeted celebrities as they walked in and the entire run of the show had long sold out. This was not a normal premiere, but it was not a normal show. Telling the story of American TV and tabloid celebrity Anna Nicole Smith’s life, this was a new commission and had been in development for over 5 years.
I had been so excited that I had specifically requested to review the opera for La Repubblica. By the next morning I had cancelled my piece. Angered by what I had seen, I didn’t want to contribute to the media frenzy surrounding something that had missed the point in so many ways.
Since I saw the first episode of her reality programme in 2002, I always liked Anna Nicole Smith. I respected her story, I liked the way she smiled and more than anything I felt compassion for her. I found her eccentricities funny but over all I felt sorry for the tragedy she endured in the last few years of her life. Anna Nicole was born in a small town in Texas, moved to Houston as a single mother at the age of 20.
She found a job at a strip club and within a few years was posing for the cover and centrefold of Playboy magazine. It was at this time that Anna began her relationship with J. Howard Marshall, a billionaire oil tycoon. They eventually married, she was 27 and he was 89. She was successful as a model, even replacing Claudia Schiffer as the face of Guess. At this stage, her classic beauty didn’t hint at her turbulent life, which would later steal the limelight.
Her billionaire husband died just over a year after their wedding. The legal disputes over Anna’s share of her husband’s fortune lasted over a decade. Anna eventually filed for bankruptcy and became a household name as a result of her much publicised case. In 2002 her reality TV show premiered on E Network. I was hooked. It lasted 2 years before being dropped. The show was a critical disaster and launched Anna into the final and most dangerous stage of her life. Now addicted to the media attention and living beyond her means, she became a parody of herself. Drug abuse became more and more evident. The worse she behaved the more attention she got. Once again, a celebrity’s demise became popular entertainment.
The death of her shy son Daniel was the beginning of the end. His death was as tragic as they come. He died from an accidental overdose, whilst visiting his mother in her hospital room and some reports say he was in her bed. Five months later Anna Nicole was found dead in her room at a Florida hotel, with seven different prescription drugs found in her body.
It is hard to imagine anyone reading this account of her life and not feeling some sort of compassion. The televised scenes of her sitting in the back of a limousine begging for pickled gherkins were ridiculous, but if you didn’t like her then you didn’t have to watch. Some women pass her off as a gold digging slut, who even posed for pornos. So what? Many people I know are gold diggers and they don’t get the same abuse she did. And why judge someone for making porn. It seems to be that as soon as a porn star becomes more than a faceless piece of meat, they become reviled.
The only reason she was so hated by American media in particular, is because her and her situation got ugly. It was too in our face, there was nothing hidden. Anna became a mirror to the over medicated and indulgent and a parable to the dangers of exploitive media. She became too real.
I went to the opera with a hope that some part of this story would be put right. I wanted the audience to see part of themselves in her. The first half was full of promise. The score by Mark-Anthony Turnage, was undeniably brilliant. Flicking between a-tonality, jazz and even hints of Sondhime melodic lyricism. The Libretto by Richard Thomas was eloquent and unapologetic, even if it did feel insincere. Storming through her life the audience laughed and laughed but that never that transcended into worry, compassion or self examination. Instead of black comedy or a Brechtian montage, Richard Jones’ direction left us with clever but cynical pantomime. Throughout the first half no empathy was established between the audience and Anna. Her son’s death in the second half comes as a sudden bump with no real emotional pay off.
The saddest thing of all was that that was exactly how it felt when it happened in real life. The Opera could have done this mother and son story more justice. Anna was sacrificed for a laugh and made a villain in the media. The Opera could have created and reinvented an archetype and tragic protagonist as meaningful as any other operatic heroines. Sadly for Anna Nicole the opera failed to do that. It made many people laugh and made me sad because it seemed such a waste of a modern tragic true story.Translation in Progress
by Mika on xL Repubblica
Firstly posted on Mikasounds