During the opening night of Anna Nicole at BAM, I found myself experiencing a case of déjà vu. New York City Opera was electrifying the Howard Gilman Opera House with a work by a living composer featuring the salacious story of a female protagonist whose life was splashed across tabloids, and at one point even featuring an act of fellatio with the disjointed music carrying on in the background. This description sums up NYCO’s February performances of Powder Her Face – Thomas Adès’ chamber opera about the Duchess of Argyll – as well as its latest stunt, composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas’ depiction of the life of Anna Nicole Smith. Both productions were spectacularly lively, flashy, and well put-together.

Sarah Coomes, Robert Brubaker, Sarah Joy Miller © Stephanie Berger
Sarah Coomes, Robert Brubaker, Sarah Joy Miller
© Stephanie Berger

But this time there was an undercurrent of desperation. Rather than serving as a raunchy season-opener for NYCO, the seven nights of Anna Nicole might end up being the 2013/14 season in its entirety; NYCO recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to ameliorate its latest financial woes. To be fair, the desperation also might have come from the subject herself, who, when we first encounter her, is yearning to escape small-town Mexia for the bright lights of Houston. Life as a single mom working at Jim’s Krispy Fried Chicken isn’t enough to satisfy Anna’s ambitions: soprano Sarah Joy Miller sang out young Anna’s woes in a warm Texas accent.

Anna’s mother, sung brilliantly by Susan Bickley, is the only voice providing any form of sensible moral and social commentary. But eventually Anna manages to get away from her mother and the rest of her family, and, after a brief and depressing stint at Walmart, is able to find more exciting work as a pole-dancer. The pole-dancing scene was one of several highlighting the lavishness of Richard Jones’ all-around clever production, with sets by Miriam Buether and lighting design by Mimi Jordan Sherin and D.M. Wood. The dancers, choreographed by Aletta Collins and clad in brightly-hued costumes – well, strips of fabric – designed by Nicky Gillibrand, twirled up and down their poles while explaining to Anna that she needs to “get some tits”. Unfortunately, Anna is the only dancer without bowling-ball-model breast implants, so she quickly solves that problem: “Supersize me”, she tells the plastic surgeon towards the end of the first act. Shortly afterwards, she lands an older husband in the form of J. Howard Marshall, portrayed wonderfully and creepily by Robert Brubaker. She hopes the 89-year-old oilman will provide a ranch for her and her son Daniel, who silently mopes across the stage in a Nirvana T-shirt for most of the opera. As Anna pushes Marshall’s wheelchair around and around, performs oral sex on him, and ultimately marries him, we are reminded that “there’s no such thing as a free ranch.”

During the second act, everything goes sour. With chronic back pain caused by her prosthetic breasts, Anna gets hooked on painkillers and slobbers her way from an ongoing legal battle for the now-deceased Marshall’s estate to an interview on the Larry King show, assisted by the now-teenage Daniel and her lawyer/lover Howard Stern. During an excruciating “pause”, we watch Anna’s transformation over the years as a curtain splashed with her image is replaced in slow-motion by a nearly-identical curtain showing how the rest of her body has ballooned up to match the bowling ball breasts. After the sudden death of Daniel, Anna zips herself into a bodybag and blows the audience a farewell kiss, the opera ending with the shuffling feet of the paparazzi and then the flash of a camera. Ms Miller had transformed the character not only physically but emotionally, as Anna’s melodramatic demise seemed sad, almost tragic, even after all the ditzy hand-wringing and arm-flailing and bouncing up and down.

The consistencies of the directing and the repetitions in the libretto seemed mismatched with music that oscillated between bluesy, jazzy phrases, and then tunes reminiscent of musical theater (complete with snapping and line-dancing from the chorus), and then notes that basically seemed to exist to take up space. Ms Miller and the rest of the team did a fine job of giving a probable floozy some dimensionality, but Mr Turnage’s music felt occasionally flat and directionless even with the excellent conducting of Steven Sloane. In the opening scene, the chorus announces that “you won’t be bored”, and it’s true that Anna’s life provides more than enough entertainment to ward off restlessness. But Mr Turnage’s music on its own would be, I imagine, pretty boring.

While it’s doubtful that such a topical opera, especially considering its somewhat flimsy score, will land a place in the opera canon, I don’t think that was the intention anyway. The music of Anna Nicole isn’t necessarily memorable, but this performance certainly was. And so hopefully it is encouraging for those who wring their hands over the future of classical music that a struggling opera company can sing out the word “c*ntalicious” to a packed house on a Tuesday evening in Brooklyn.