In case you've somehow missed the hype, Anna Nicole is the Royal Opera's newly commissioned opera about the life of Anna Nicole Smith, a girl from Texas who married an elderly billionnaire, became a model and celebrity sex symbol who received gigantic media exposure, and died of a drug overdose a few months after the death of her son. It's Mark-Anthony Turnage's third major opera, and the first that he has written with librettist Richard Thomas. The salacious material of the story ‐ sex, drugs and celebrity abound ‐ has attracted an extraordinary media blitz. Press tickets for the opening night were rarer than hen's teeth, but we were fortunate to get tickets for the last night of a six-performance opening run.

Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna and Alan Oke as Marshall © The Royal Opera, Bill Cooper
Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna and Alan Oke as Marshall
© The Royal Opera, Bill Cooper

Most of the critics have either loved or hated Anna Nicole. The "hate" category have either found the material uninteresting ("why should we care about a tawdry low-life of this sort, so it doesn't make a good subject for opera") or decided that Turnage's blending of American popular styles into the music means that it's a Broadway show and not a "real" opera. I'm firmly in the "love" camp, I thought it was a fantastic evening and everything that I'd want a new opera to be.

Anna's tragedy is framed by the birth of her children. She sets off on the path to the big city when her son is born - dearly loved by her, unwanted by her husband. Her son dies because he is unable to cope with the birth of Anna's daughter, she dies because she is unable to cope with her son's death. The story is told very personally, and Anna sums it up succinctly: I made some bad choices, then some worse choices, then I ran out of choices. But it's also told in a way that's very politically charged. Two crucial choruses in the first act set up the tragedy to follow: the ballad of low wages sung by the supermarket shelf-stackers unable to make ends meet and the lap dancers who explain to Anna the facts of life and sexual exploitation. Burkhas in the East, G-strings in the West is one of a string of memorable lines from Richard Thomas's bitingly witty libretto, as is We are the breastless masses, the opening line of the hilarious ballad sung by the girls waiting in line for plastic surgery. And although much of the press has focused on the sensational areas, I thought these were just one component of an overall story told using many styles, from Greek Chorus opening to the morality play style of the end, with Anna's mother as the storyteller.

Many operas are written as a vehicle for the voice of a particular singer. This is probably the first in musical history to be written around the talents of a jazz drummer: a great deal of the music is founded on the extraordinary abilities of Peter Erskine, one of the giants of the jazz and rock worlds who happens to have been classically trained and can play in just about any style. The combination of Erskine and Antonio Pappano constantly drove the music forward, and the inclusion of jazz/rock instruments provides Turnage with a very wide palette of sounds to work with - a palette which he exploits extensively. There are snatches and quotes from all sorts of bits of American music, mixed in with material of a more conventionally operatic style. The score includes some moments of great lyrical beauty (although these are always short-lived, perhaps in keeping with the story). There's a liberal sprinkling of show-tune material, but in contradiction to the hype, there's not much actual jazz. I thoroughly enjoyed the music, particularly in Act II, and while it can be accused of being stylistically fragmented and lacking in overall coherence, I fail to understand some of the press commentary which said that Anna Nicole is a musical and not a "real opera." I defy anyone to find singers who can sing this material without full operatic training.

Performances were of uniform excellence. As Anna, Eva-Maria Westbroek sings well - but the revelation is in her acting: she makes us believe in her character completely, from start to finish. Alan Oke's portrayal of the octogenerian Marshall will be difficult to better, with a joyous tenor voice coming from such a slight frame. They're ably backed up by the supporting roles: Gerard Finley as the publicity-seeking lawyer and Susan Bickley as the morally outspoken but flawed mother. Peter Hoare contributes a spectacular cameo as the television presenter Larry King: I'm told by American friends that it's scarily true to life. A strength of the opera is that it provides concise but compelling character studies of all involved, and the Royal Opera assembled a cast that brings this out to the full.

The production is bright, in your face and overpoweringly kitsch. Mostly, it works very well, and one artistic conceit particularly caught my eye: the dancers dressed in black body suits with their heads apparently replaced by television cameras, providing a horrifically spooky depiction of the constant, all-seeing media presence. The sets and costumes all scream "excess" at you - love it or loathe it. Certainly, Anna Nicole must have been a hideously expensive item to stage, with many sets of scenery and 34 named performers on the cast list as well as conductor, large orchestra and chorus.

Ultimately, what I want from contemporary opera is a compelling story about something that makes me care, sung by singers whose voices I enjoy and who make me believe in their characters, and told with music that enhances the experience as well as moving me emotionally. Anna Nicole provided all of these things. I have no idea whether it represents "a direction for modern opera." But unlike many others written recently, I think we're going to see it performed a lot more often than its initial short run.

Oh, by the way, there are lots of four letter words, but no more than are appropriate to the material and the characterisation. So what.