We’re used to tabloid headlines making their way onto TV but less frequently does Hollywood scandal enter the proscenium stage—especially in an opera. That’s exactly what’s happening when Anna Nicole, an operatic account of the life and times of model, actress and cautionary tale Anna Nicole Smith, has its U.S. premiere September 17 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Anna Nicole Smith. Photo: Getty Images
Coming as it does from composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera), the piece—which premiered at London’s Royal Opera House in 2011—mixes traditional operatic work with a low-culture icon for the rare sort of production that will appeal to both opera lovers and National Enquirer subscribers.
Here, DuJour chats with Sarah Joy Miller, the soprano in the opera’s title role, about her character, its challenges and what might be the next pop-opera megahit.
La Traviata, Rigoletto, La Bohème, Anna Nicole? How did you come to this production?
I didn’t know much about it when it premiered in London. My agent got in touch with me and said they had this thing I should really audition for. I was like, “an opera about Anna Nicole Smith? What the heck?” But I looked at the music and flipped through the libretto and it just really moved me. It’s an amazing piece that starts at the beginning of her life and moves into the time period we’re all familiar with and then on to her death. It’s an amazing role.
Caption: Courtesy of fanpop
How much did you know about Anna Nicole Smith before you took on the role?
Not a lot. I knew of her Guess? ads—she was so beautiful in those. I had caught some episodes of her reality show, which was of course near the end of her life and was this over-the-top version of her on drugs. That’s what was so surprising: This is a story about a high-school dropout who becomes a teenage mother willing to anything for her son. There’s something universal about that.
There’s so much out there about this person, but it’s a bit one-sided. What kind of research were you able to do?
For opera, you typically don’t get all this information. Even if you’re doing a character like Anna Bolena—Anne Boleyn—you don’t get to see her. I watched all the YouTube clips you could find, but I realized that in order to authentically access a version of Anna Nicole for myself, I had to understand her psyche and one of the biggest influences for her was Marilyn Monroe. So at one point I really started delving into Marilyn a lot because when we see Anna Nicole trying to be a sex kitten, she’s really trying to be Marilyn.
What challenges does playing a modern-day character present to you as a singer?
It’s very different. If I’m singing Violetta, which is one of my favorite characters to portray, there is a lot of me to bring to the role but also generations of divas who have excelled at playing it. Working on someone brand new is great because nobody has any expectations. It’s really fun and freeing to be able to bring what’s entirely myself to the piece.
The biggest challenge with this role is that I really never leave the stage. I’m there for two hours. Even the costume changes—I think there are nine in the first act alone—happen on stage. Because I portray her from a young girl, when she had very little voluptuousness if you will, I have a lot of prosthetics to wear and that took a lot of getting used to.
The 2011 production at Royal Opera House. Photo: ROH/Bill Cooper
Speaking of the costumes, what you wear for Anna Nicole has to be different than your average opera. Do you have a personal favorite?
It’s hard to choose! Nicky Gillibrand is the designer—she’s a genius—and she said the other day she didn’t know how she’s go back to designing normal opera costumes because it’s just so much fun to go crazy with fashion from the 1980s and ’90s. If I had to choose my favorite, it might be this black lingerie-type piece that I’m wearing in the beginning of the second act. She only wears it for a minute, but it’s very elegant.
Do you think we’ll start seeing more operatic works about modern life?
Modern opera and traditional opera have always existed. There are certain singers who tend to do a lot of modern opera and those who don’t do any. This is a special story because despite it being so current, it’s not so different than the story of Manon or of Violetta. It’s all heightened drama and a crazy emotional rollercoaster, just in modern times. It’s important that we have modern opera, but that we keep traditions alive as well.
Is there anyone whose life you think would make for great opera?
Maybe Michael Jackson or Whitney Houston. It’s so hard to encapsulate a life in two hours, but I think something like that could definitely speak to people.