The perfect subject for an opera

Anna Nicole Smith was an adventuress and a self-made woman

Independent, Tuesday 8 February 2011

Her first husband was 16, her second 89. Her life story was a soap opera involving breast implants, Playboy centrefolds, strip clubs, lawsuits, TV shows, threats of bankruptcy and premature death. Next week these events will be replayed on stage when Anna Nicole: The Opera opens at Covent Garden. I can’t wait to see it.

The libretto has been written by Richard Thomas, whose previous forays into American popular culture include writing Jerry Springer: the Opera. But Thomas is clear that he wants audiences to feel sympathy for Smith: “You have to feel that she wasn’t just this cartoon,” he says. And if it seems incongruous for a middle-class venue like the Royal Opera House to tackle the story of a stripper and glamour model dismissed in her lifetime as “white trash”, that’s because it’s easy to overlook the genuinely tragic elements in the biographies of working-class women like Smith and Jade Goody.

Smith’s story is as sad as any of Verdi’s or Puccini’s heroines, with elements of Alban Berg’s Lulu thrown in. She came from a broken home, got next to no education, married for the first time at 17 and had a baby before she was 20. One of the saddest things about her life is that the summit of her ambition was to follow in the footsteps of Marilyn Monroe. Dead blondes don’t make good role models, and the breast implants Smith got to promote her career as a model resulted in chronic back pain and a reliance on painkillers.

Her marriage to a fabulously wealthy (and octogenarian) oil tycoon was regarded with tight-lipped disapproval, despite the fact that she spoke of him with seemingly genuine affection. It’s a curious fact that visiting strip clubs and their modern incarnation, pole-dancing clubs, has been completely normalised, whereas the women who work in them remain suspect; when Smith asked for half her husband’s $1.6bn fortune after his death – plenty of dosh to go round, you might think – she was resisted all the way to the Supreme Court by her stepson. I’m still not clear why wanting a share of the estate makes her a “gold-digger”.

Smith’s death at the age of 39 from an overdose of prescription drugs happened not long after a tragedy of jaw-dropping proportions: the death of her son, also from an overdose, in her hospital room not long after she gave birth to her daughter. A year later, the former Big Brother contestant Jade Goody died of cervical cancer at the age of 28, a circumstance that transformed her previously hostile public image. Both deaths were avoidable, had they known more about their bodies or been given better advice, and between them they left behind two young sons (Goody) and a five-month-old daughter (Smith).

Grand opera likes its heroines less ambiguous than this. Working-class women and high-class prostitutes know their fate, which is to expire beautifully and release the men who have fallen in love with them. Many times I’ve sat in opera houses, moved by the music but wishing that Mimi or Butterfly would get angry and give their lovers a piece of their mind. I’ve always found Lulu more complex and interesting, but then Berg (or rather Wedekind, whose plays the opera is based on) can’t resist throwing her in the path of Jack the Ripper at the finale.

What’s heartbreaking about Smith and Goody is their working-class feistiness, along with glimpses of an intelligence that might have been turned to less risky ends if they’d had a better start in life. Smith was an adventuress, an old-fashioned word that suits the gusto with which she threw herself into one experience after another; she was also a self-made woman, destroyed halfway through her life by the very aspirations that drive popular culture. That she didn’t survive beyond her thirties is a modern morality tale, perfect material for opera in an age when celebrity is both a lure and a trap.

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