Mark-Anthony Turnage interview: Anna Nicole at the opera
Mark-Anthony Turnage discusses his new opera Anna Nicole, a tragi-comical snapshot of the tabloid world surrounding the American glamour model and reality TV hostess.
How did the idea of an opera about Anna Nicole Smith come about?
It was nearly five years ago when Elaine Padmore and Tony Pappano at Covent Garden commissioned me, but it took a long time to home in on the subject. All they suggested was that it should be something in a lighter vein, and this chimed with what I wanted to do after The Silver Tassie. I met up with Richard Thomas on a BBC panel and we really hit it off because he was a composer as well as a writer. I asked him to create the libretto and Richard Jones, who was now on board as director, suggested the two of us had weekly brainstorm sessions for ideas. My wife Gabi, who’s got her finger on the pulse of popular culture, suggested the idea of Anna Nicole Smith because the story was so amazing, and I found it was also on Richard Thomas’s list, and things went from there.
How did your view of Anna Nicole and her milieu develop during the opera’s creation?
When we suggested Anna Nicole at Covent Garden Tony Pappano acted as a wonderful devil’s advocate because he kept saying “Why her?” This made me dig deeper and the more I read the more I knew it was a good idea. It was all so over the top it was perfect for an opera – you wouldn’t have believed it if you didn’t know it was true. Then we realised there were conflicting biographical details, contradictory stories, and the tabloids had employed poetic license to create something beyond truth. This media distortion of reality is something we address in the opera.
Your operas have always had a strong narrative trajectory. How is story-telling in Anna Nicole balanced with the work’s comic take on celebrity culture?
At one level Anna Nicole is a tragic rise and fall story, and it became clear that the piece would only work if the audience developed some sympathy for her as a character. Our intention was not to trash her and the work is dedicated to her. That said there are plenty of comic aspects which explore irony and politics and the modern themes of drugs, celebrity and media intrusion. Anna Nicole got more column inches than many great figures of the last century – to put it bluntly she wasn’t Susan Sontag - and you have to find that situation ridiculous.
Your earlier two operas, Greek and The Silver Tassie, were based on existing plays by Berkoff and O’Casey. How different was it creating a completely new piece for the theatre?
Funnily enough the process is much the same – cutting down to operatic size – but it is much harder to structure. Richard Thomas and I had to get used to working together. He is a true man of the theatre, bursting with ideas, and we started with too much material. There was so much written about Anna Nicole and we soon agreed that a lot would have to end up on the cutting room floor. The other curious thing was that as Richard is a composer, he writes with his own music in mind, and had to get used to my music sounding different. Once we got into a creative rhythm, things were much easier, and we were soon honing the words and music.
How much in Anna Nicole is docudrama and how much theatrical invention?
We didn’t have to fabricate the events because they are all public knowledge, but the inventive aspect became more interesting when you deal with the characters, who are either still alive or who died recently. This is not a biopic mirroring newsreel footage, so the people have to exist in a stage space on their own terms, removed from real life. There is no point just caricaturing someone like Larry King. You have to capture the essence of the man and then give him theatrical purpose.
Anna Nicole is closer to musical theatre than opera in many respects. How did your style of writing need to adapt?
The fast pacing was the real challenge. The action is telescoped and you have to get the words across immediately. This was very different from writing my other operas and Richard Thomas was a big help. He forced me to lighten up, as my instinct is to go darker and twist the knife too early. It is only in the last 15 minutes when Anna Nicole’s life collapses with the death of her son that my melancholic side is released. I employed a simpler, more tonal homophonic style in Act 1 where the chorus is the principal protagonist as the crowd mocking Anna Nicole. The tightness of the drama may be like musical theatre, but it couldn’t be put on in the West End by singers from the musicals tradition – it calls for operatic resources and I had the voices of Eva Maria Westbroek and Gerald Finley in my head from the start.
During the development process, what useful feedback did you get?
Well, the best feedback in workshops was that people laughed at the jokes. It meant we were doing something right. The vocal score was finished by this stage, and apart from a scene that Richard Jones rightly suggested we cut, there weren’t many big changes. In a few instances we’d trimmed back too far, and had to add a few bars back in to get the dramatic timing right. It was useful to check points of balance as I was then working on the orchestration.
You’ve always created a strong sense of place and time in your operas, such as London’s East End in the Thatcher era or the Dublin tenements during the First World War. How did you create the American flavour of the 1990s for Anna Nicole?
There is a lot of American music deep down in my style, so I didn’t feel I needed to go much further than this. I avoided pastiche, like creating a mock Country & Western sound, as this would have cheapened things. There is a jazz trio including parts written for drummer Peter Erskine and Led Zeppelin bass player John Paul Jones, plus a banjo, and you might detect the odd reference to stripper music…
As a composer, what future do you see for opera?
I think opera will survive if it connects to “now”. I don’t mean it has to always be a CNN-opera but it has to engage with issues of contemporary relevance. Operas that don’t work for me are when they are reversioned from a great book or film with no life of their own – it is what Richard Jones describes as “classy snooze”. Audiences may find Anna Nicole provocative but they will certainly have an opinion about it. What I hope is that they’ll come to the opera with a preconceived view about who she was, and they may be surprised to leave with a different view.
Anna Nicole (2008-10)
Opera in two acts
Richard Thomas Librettist
Antonio Pappano Conductor
Richard Jones Director
Royal Opera House, London
17 February 2011 (world premiere)
> View the Royal Opera House trailer for Anna Nicole
> Visit the Royal Opera House website for tickets
> Further information on Work: Anna Nicole
Photo: Philip Gatward