Sunday, September 29, 2013

How Anna Nicole Smith Could Save Opera in the 21st Century

Hey world! Long time no see hun? Sorry about that! You guys must think I haven’t watched anything new over the past month and that’s why I haven’t posted but that’s actually not true. I did see a production of Don Giovanni about two weeks ago here in São Paulo that I hated in general. I mean, there were some positive points, the guy playing Don Giovanni, the gorgeous costumes and sets (but that’s not really thanks to the theatre itself since I was told everything came from another production of Don in Vienna). So I thought it’d be best if I didn’t write a post about it because Don Giovanni is probably my favorite Mozart opera, I know most of it by heart and if I told you guys what happened that day in the theatre, things would get ugly. I have also gone to Sumi Jo’s concert last week in Sala São Paulo and might one day write about it but not now. It was fun and I was happy I got to see some opera friends I hadn’t seen in a while but it was nothing compared to Vesselina’s or Renée’s concert.

But I’m here actually to publish the work of one of my first opera twitter friends, the notorious Opera Teen (aka Harry). Harry is one talented guy who has an immense knowledge of this amazing art form. Here he writes his views and previsions about the opera “Anna Nicole” that is based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith and had its premiere in the NYOC just a couple of weeks ago.

Sarah Joy Miller as Anna Nicole in the NYCO

"Opera is no stranger to the idea of a sex symbol. There’s Violetta, the most celebrated courtesan of Paris, Manon Lescaut, the alluring and money loving subject of many operas, and Dalila, the Biblical femme-fatale. While all those women are part of stories that have been told for over a hundred years, even today the sex symbol still proves to be a provocative subject for the operatic stage. On September 17th, Mark Anthony Turnage’s opera, Anna Nicole, undoubtedly one of the most important operas of the 21st century, arrives at Brooklyn Academy of Music in a co-presentation with New York City Opera for its American premiere. The opera is based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith, the Playmodel cum millionaire-octogenarian’s wife who ultimately succumbed to the pressures of fame. It premiered in London in 2011 to mostly positive reviews. Eva-Maria Westbroek played the fallen starlet in a production by Richard Jones, who will be directing this NYCO production. The libretto, with enough cursing to make any rap artist blush, is by Richard Thomas. Since then, it has only been presented at Oper Dortmund, with changes since the premiere. Of the changes, Emily Newton, the Texan soprano who sang the title role at Dortmund, said “In several places in the score, Turnage expanded things musically for the version that was performed in Dortmund… However, there was an addition that I feel was very positive. The final aria (arietta?) for Anna Nicole was expanded at the climax in a way that was musically satisfying and also vocally gratifying for the singer… The additional phrases of "I wanted more!" at the climax of the aria in the Dortmund version made me feel like I had more time and vocal material to express one of the core ideas of the character.”

As an opera, Anna Nicole definitely has earned its share of criticisms. A lot of complaints stemmed from the fact that two British composers chose an American, formerly middleclass celebrity who started as a stripper. Many people felt that the topic was too foreign for two people so removed from that lifestyle to pull off respectably, and that’s a valid concern. The opera is full of cynicism with scenes that depict the hardships of WalMart employees, raucous parties, and damaging drug addictions. That said, I personally found the piece (through the video issued by the ROH) an extremely honest look at fame and the prejudices that exist in our society.  The libretto was the most poorly received part of the opera. Of the changes made to the libretto, Newton added “…There were small subtle changes in the libretto, which I feel like enhanced an already brilliant libretto and made it more idiomatic. No changes were really drastic in my opinion, but the adjustments were all excellent fine-tuning.”

While at first glance the opera may seem like a musical biography, but on closer listening and examination, that proves not to be the case. While the opera is about a celebrity, it’s more of a parable warning against the dangers of fame. Anna Nicole Smith is an archetype for the fallen celebrity. In theory, the message of this opera could be delivered through focusing on any number of modern celebrities who haven’t been doing well under Hollywood’s microscope. I wouldn’t be surprised if in a few years, we had a Lindsay Lohan opera. Now, who would want to see an opera about Lindsay Lohan? I’m willing to guess a lot of people. I can make a guarantee that an opera about a celebrity would sell tickets in the US. Lately many companies see the answer to bringing new audiences into opera houses is through aggressive marketing campaigns. While it’s great to see a Met advertisement on the side of a bus, is it really the thing that will ultimately get them to the opera? They also use tactics like bringing in new directors, and, of course, the hotly debated “sex sells” method of advertising. Maybe, the answer to courting new audiences is striking closer to home with the material on which new opera is based, as Anna Nicole had a sold out run at the ROH in 2011. No matter how many performances of Traviata or Boheme there are, if new operas are not being written and produced, then opera really should be called dead.

That’s why Anna Nicole’s arrival in New York, even at the cash strapped New York City Opera, is so exciting and important to the state of new classical music and opera in the United States. It demonstrates that there really is still a desire to hear newer works. The dedication to premiering new works and reviving recent compositions was one of the defining hallmarks and achievements of New York City Opera for a long time. New York City Opera was the company who originally presented pieces like: “The Tender Land” by Copland, “The Crucible” by Ward, and “Candide” by Bernstein. If New York City Opera, once the champion of new opera, isn’t presenting any more new works, than who is? There are smaller organizations like Gotham Chamber Opera, but nothing on as large and influential a sale as NYCO. For new opera in New York City to survive, NYCO needs to survive.

With all that’s been circulating on social media about New York City Opera and how its mismanagement is sending it spiraling towards the ground, it needs to be clarified that opera could not have survived into this century without the help of companies like New York City Opera. The Met wasn’t doing many new works and there were only a handful of very small opera companies in the city that were on budgets too small to warrant experimentation with new operas. In past seasons at NYCO, newer pieces, like Rufus Wainright’s Prima Donna, have sold well. Maybe, just maybe, the answer to bringing new audiences into opera houses is new operas that strike closer to home. To get to the public, you have to pique their interests. It’s not dumbing opera down, or changing the language. It’s opera about things people want to hear. And that’s what people will come back for."

I think it’s really important to make space to talk about new operas and risqué works such as these. Because, as I’ve told Harry himself a couple of days ago, every time I hear somebody criticize the fact that someone like Anna Nicole is the main subject of an opera I can’t help but think back about 200 years ago when people only wrote operas about old legends, kings and heroes and one little man with a funny laugh and extraordinary compositional gifts dared to write opera about the everyday people of his time. How he was trashed and criticized back then but nevertheless his work was a success and today Le Nozze di Figaro is one of the most performed works in the repertoire. Think about that ;)

I’m gonna leave you guys there but I’ll be back later this week because on Wednesday evening I fly to New York City! YES! And I promise to make a post for each day, I’m arriving there on Thursday, 6 in the morning. See you guys then! Cheers!

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