Wednesday, September 17, 2014
At the start of the interval, the besuited guy in front of us turned round and told her to stop laughing.
Problem: this opera is meant to be funny.
The librettist would have been overjoyed to get such a positive reaction (elsewhere in the house sharp intakes of breath could be heard around some of the filthier lines). So would the composer. So would the performers; there's nothing worse than uttering something that's meant to be hilarious and eliciting...well, polite silence.
Meanwhile the management is doing its best to open up access and encourage wider appreciation of its artforms. Nobody I know in the echelons of musical performers and creators is remotely stuffy or elitist; everyone, but everyone, wants the audience to enjoy their work. The whole music world is falling over backwards trying to open itself up to bigger, broader audiences.
But frankly, if other opera-goers won't let people laugh at the jokes, what hope is there? All that effort - straight down the drain. Deity-of-choice [to quote the opera], help us all.
This incident is a nice little supplement to the time a critic was spotted telling off a small African-American child in the RFH (remember that?) and the occasion on which another one told me and my niece to stop laughing at a Prom - the incident being a pianist who as his post-concerto encore played a fugue on a Lady Gaga song, and my niece was the only one of us who actually knew what it was. If I've personally encountered such situations three times in just a few years - and I am press, for goodness sake - then I shudder to think what other people are being subjected to out there.
My friend, incidentally, comes from Detroit, which is one reason she laughed so much - for her, the portrayal of the background to Anna Nicole's trailer-trash early life rings all too true. Now she lives in Berlin and is one of the more vital movers-and-shakers in the classical music world. She sees it as her mission to help find ways for this industry to move ahead in new directions, a forum where the community of music-makers around the world can work together to create an innovative, forward-looking future. Her organisation is called Classical:NEXT. Bring it on.
[UPDATE: For those who are still not sure what Anna Nicole is all about, here is a preview from the ROH. It's a tragicomedy by Mark-Anthony Turnage, based on the true story of Anna Nicole Smith. The end is desperately sad, but the first half is full of wit and wordplay. The librettist Richard Thomas also wrote Jerry Springer: The Opera]
Sunday, August 31, 2014
I went to see Mark-Anthony Turnage the other week to talk to him about the revival of Anna Nicole that is to open the Royal Opera House's new season (11 Sept). Article is in the Independent now and the uncut version is below. First, a taster: the PARTAY scene with the amazing team of Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole and Gerald Finley as Howard Stern...
One more thought: isn't it also high time someone staged his earlier opera The Silver Tassie again?
One more thought: isn't it also high time someone staged his earlier opera The Silver Tassie again?
The premiere of Anna Nicole by Mark-Anthony Turnage, in 2011, was unlike any other the Royal Opera House has experienced. The foyer was plastered with images of the soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Anna Nicole Smith, complete with supersized fake breasts; and on the stage’s red velvet curtains the initials for the Queen, ER II, were replaced with “AnR”. This startling transformation of empty celebrity into high art is back to open the Royal Opera House’s new season on 11 September, with a special performance for an audience of students.
Turnage himself is all for this latter idea. “I think it’s fantastic,” he says. “I feel it’s part of a genuine effort by Covent Garden to get a wider audience in – they really want to make a difference.” Still, he has no idea how the work will go over with this youthful crowd: “I hope they’ll see it as a comic piece with a tragic end. But it’s quite likely that none of them, mostly aged between 18 and 26, will have heard of Anna Nicole Smith,” he remarks.
The eponymous heroine, to remind you, built a career as model and TV presenter after having her breasts surgically enhanced to vast proportions. She married an octogenarian billionaire, but was excluded from his will, lost her son to drugs and died of an overdose aged 39 in 2007. The court cases around her have rumbled on into recent weeks.
Still, it is the archetypal “fallen woman” resonances of her tale that well suit the genre of opera. “I think you can get too obsessed with the idea that it’s a story that relates to today,” says Turnage. “We were after a story that’s universal. Relevance – so what? If it dates, it dates. This time I won’t read the reviews.”
Anna Nicole was a hit with some for Turnage’s gritty, jazzy, sometimes heartbreakingly beautiful score and its snarky libretto by Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera). Others, considering the subject too trashy for an opera house, couldn’t abide it. For its composer, creating it was both agony and ecstasy.
“I found it very hard to write,” he says. The difficulty was the comedy: “It’s so hard to make people laugh!” He says he relied strongly on Thomas’s skill and experience with that side of it, adding, “All the miserable, angsty, lyrical stuff – that’s much easier for me.”
Controversy still surrounds the work: several opera houses in the US have demurred from staging it because of its bad language. But at 54 Turnage is no stranger to controversy. He shot to fame in his late twenties when his first opera, Greek, established him as the “bad boy” of British new music. While modernism and serialism were still excessively dominant forces, he drew vital influences from popular idioms, which was considered highly rebellious; and much was made in the press of his Essex background and his passion for football. “I’d played it up,” he admits, “and it hasn’t done me any harm.”
More fuss emerged in 2010 when his orchestral work for the Proms, Hammered Out, proved to have rather a lot in common with Beyoncé’s "Single Ladies". The imitation was a sincere form of flattery, plus a musical gift for his son, who liked the song; but eventually, Turnage says, “I paid 50 per cent to Beyoncé. I’d handled it really badly,” he reflects. “I should have come clean about it from the start.” His biggest regret, though, seems to be that he did not get to meet the R&B star.
His penchant for popular idioms may not have endeared Turnage to musical establishment organisations that give annual awards; incredibly, his only prizes are for his opera The Silver Tassie, which scooped an Olivier Award and a South Bank Award in 2000. Nevertheless, he has a strong following among both public and musicians, constantly garnering an impressive string of international commissions at the highest level, with orchestras including the New York Philharmonic and the Berlin Philharmonic. The premiere takes place in Flanders, in October, of Passchendaele, a work commemorating World War I; further highlights ahead include another opera for Covent Garden, planned for 2020.
“People say I’m prolific,” Turnage remarks. “Well, I’ve got a lot of kids, so I’ve got to write a lot of music. I’m not writing to be indulgent, I’m writing to provide for my family.” He has four children aged between 18 and three, from two ex-marriages. Composers, he acknowledges, can be difficult to live with: “You can become so focused on work that you can be a pain in the arse. I think I’ve learned how to switch off.” Today he lives alone in a compact north London flat where his desk companions are busts of Beethoven and Brahms and, on his computer, an exceptionally scary photograph of Stravinsky.
“People do find composing hard and they do struggle,” he says. “But that struggle, the pain of it, is also very attractive to me, very engaging. If we’re not totally bound up in this strange world we’re in in composition, then something’s wrong. It’s got to be obsessive.”
Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, London, from 11 September. Box office: 020 7304 4000
Friday, February 18, 2011
Here's my write-up of ANNA NICOLE from today's Independent.
I want to see it again - and will do in a couple of weeks. It really is a brilliant show, and when you start trying to decide whether that is chiefly thanks to Mark Anthony Turnage's music, Richard Thomas's words, the roller-coaster staging by Richard Jones, the relishful performances from every singer or the verve of Tony Pappano and the orchestra and band, you realise that it's the whole load of them together, forming the perfect team. I'd like to know, though, if Richard Jones has a thing about smiley faces. Smileys grace the back of the drained, "low wages" blues-number WalMart employees; Smileys too, incongruous likewise, back in his Macbeth at Glyndebourne. Signature image?
A few issues to explore at slightly greater length here. The opera moves from life to death in the most visceral way: the first half is all brilliance, colour, images of fairy-tale scale - Anna's big plastic-golden throne from which she narrates the first part of her tale into the willing microphones, and the pole dancers gleam like Rhinemaidens out of a bronzy, hazy tank. The libretto bounces and twirls, not taking itself too seriously, super-ironic and often very funny. Stern the Lawyer - Gerald Finlay in max-evil mode - puts in an appearance in Act 1 and the chorus flings insults at him. Beelzebub! Shiva the Destroyer of Worlds! Worst of all: Not Cool! Then he comes back and they do more of it. He rounds on them: "Anything else?" "Yoko Ono!" they cry. And Anna reminds him: "Honey, you're not in the story yet!"
By the interval I thought I'd got it: hooray! It would have been so easy for this opera to turn out judgmental and salacious; instead it's a celebration of life. They're not saying "she sold her soul for a boob job and then look what happened to her, yah boo sucks", they're saying: "milk life for its joys, because they're gone too fast - be extreme and love it because tomorrow we..."
Oh, but hang on - they aren't. The second half grows increasingly chilly: the thronging, noisy, bright-suited chorus is slowly replaced by black-clad silent dancers with film cameras for heads, slinking around like Harry Potter dementors that suck away the will to live. The fairy-tale lighting becomes bleaker and starker. Anna's beloved son sings only after he's dead. Anna's mother, who is moral but extremely judgmental, has more and more to do. The chorus melts away. All that's left are those camera-dementors and some pretty harsh judgments. "Oh America, you dirty whore, I gave you everything and you wanted more," Anna sings, about to die. Yes, Anna Nicole is a brilliant metaphor for the decline and fall of western excess, maybe capitalism itself. But we can see that. Would it have been better not to bash us over the head with it? I hoped the story would speak, and sing, for itself and allow us to draw our own conclusions.
Thumping blame onto America in an opera for Covent Garden is just...too easy. Yes, Anna Nicole was American, but western culture as a whole has willingly lapped up the world that destroyed her. A theme that sounds derived from Fanfare for the Common Man runs through the score; the curtain that covers the passage of ten years is laden with images of hamburgers. "Supersize me!" the initially reluctant Anna says to the plastic surgeon who's about to give her back pain for life. Come on, we all bought into this. We can't just shift the blame.
I also wonder slightly about the reportage style of the storytelling. This is an opera about the culture of living under constant observation and it is not least the media intrusion, milked so horribly, that helps to destroy Anna. So in that sense, the slant is in keeping with the thrust, so to speak. But if you are telling rather than inhabiting a story, the emotion tends to stay at one remove. The music itself is good enough to induce a lump in the throat when Daniel utters his requiem of drugs and when Anna, taking a few leaves out of Dido and Aeneas's book, mourns him. It certainly doesn't leave you cold. Still, I wanted more set-up to the tragedy - more of the closeness of Anna and her son and why he took to drugs, for instance; some of the second act's drama is a little sketchy, given the horrors it portrays (Anna giving birth on pay-per-view is another step on the downward plunge). And I wanted to reach the very heart of the humanity, to get inside the characters' heads and live the tragedy with them as Verdi, for instance, would have; but this very post-modern take ultimately doesn't permit the identification that would make it possible.
As for Turnage, though - I think this may be the opera he was born to write. His style really crystallises in it: the basis is atonal and full of rough-edged textures and crunchy harmonies that you can really get your teeth into, yet it's also melodic and shot through with jazz, blues and a bit of rock 'n' roll in the party scene (hints here of his alleged flirtation with Beyonce and 'Single Ladies' at last year's Proms). It's a personal voice and a very contemporary one, but it's always listenable, memorable, focused. He's always had a good instinct for zeitgeist-trapping - remember Greek in the 1980s? - and here that instinct comes of age.
It's a tale for our times -- and only future experiences will tell whether it'll become a classic, revivable in ten, 20 or 50 years with more rewards to be gleaned on every hearing. Yesterday was its world premiere, remember. Oh, and yes, it was attended by a lot of so-called celebs -- the place was brimming with people I thought I recognised only wasn't sure whether or not I did. Seems that Boy George was there, and Norman Lamont - and just about every critic on earth.
One last observation. Two major premieres are happening this nearly-spring. The Royal Opera gets Anna Nicole. The Royal Ballet gets... Alice in Wonderland. Same planet, same theatre, different worlds...