Anna Nicole, Royal Opera House, review


Anna Nicole sitting on gold throne surrounded by reporters

Something wasn’t quite right. I was in one of my favourite venues in London and I wasn’t the youngest person. In fact, at the ripe old age of twenty-five, I was probably one of the oldest. As the Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House, Kasper Holten, walked through the hot pink curtains onto the Royal Opera House stage, he was met with cheers and whoops. It all felt a bit strange. It felt like I was at the Opera with…my friends.

The revival of the 2011 production of Anna Nicole, the brash, foul-mouthed and invasive opera, opened this year’s season at the ROH. With copious amounts of generous private funding, tickets were between £1-£25 to get people like me (young, hip, and will never be able to afford a central London rental with a sitting room, let alone a mortgage) to come along.

And it made total sense. The opera is unashamedly about what my generation have been drip-fed; the insatiable obsession with celebrity culture, where nothing (or no one) is allowed to take its natural course. So if we didn’t get it- how was anybody else meant to?!

It seemed somewhat ironic that Anna Nicole and her short shelf-life was so much better the second time. The music, the story and the cast (largely the same as the first production) were more settled. No longer was it about rude words or intrusive production or lack of clothes or innuendo or tits…it was simply about the sad, sad story.

Having a music degree in vocal studies, I’m always inclined to listen to technique, colour, diction and breath control. Well, slightly awkward… I can’t remember what the singing was like. At Trinity Laban, my singing teachers would say that if you do your job properly, people won’t congratulate you, they’ll fall in love with the music. In Anna Nicole, everything merged so well (not just because of the brilliant music direction from Pappano and non-opera acting from the cast) that I simply felt massively overwhelmed. I felt the heightened range of emotions one is supposed to feel at the opera; sad that this was a representation of my generation, and empty…like I’d just had a massive binge of whilst watching The Only Way is Essex.

I overheard someone at half time say ‘the music doesn’t let Westbroek’s voice shine!’ and whilst I agree, I imagine it was entirely intentional. Anna Nicole never had a voice, so why would you give her character lots of top soaring notes over the orchestra? You wouldn’t. Instead you make her an alto with lots of chest singing and put a drum kit over it. Thomas’ libretto and Turnage’s music is snappy and short which gives the audience member an all-too-familiar feeling of ruthlessly browsing on one’s phone- checking facebook, twitter or seeing your latest match on Tinder. There is hardly any character development, but in a culture where we want everything now, why should we wait whilst she lamented through an aria.

At the end of the performance a Trinity Laban student who wasn’t enjoying the opera at the half-time mark, tapped me on the shoulder saying how incredible the second half was, especially the last scene where the cameras go through Nicole’s trash, rat-like- whilst she sits in her own body bag. The bleak and grim image left a nasty taste in my mouth. We wanted Anna to go that far, and she did.

This opera hANNA NICOLE; ROH,  ANNA NICOLE; ROH,ad a large effect on me and I wasn’t sure why until I chatted to my brother-in-law who happens to be a Professor of Economic Geography at LSE. I was talking about my current unpaid internship in the arts and that, if I was struggling to live in London, how were other people doing internships managing? And so, as an arts graduate (with an ex-GP for a Dad and immigrant for a Mum) the class debate began. Neil pointed me in the direction of this thought-provoking piece by Nick Cohen. Just this week, Judi Dench was questioning whether drama courses were now a kind of finishing school. And as this article discusses, where is all the art reflecting the recession? The answer? There is none, as none of the artists with a platform felt it.

It struck me that the reason Anna Nicole the Opera is so important is because of Anna Nicole herself. Regardless of what you think of her, she started from an abusive family home, working in Walmart and ended up a millionaire widow of a billionaire. The Royal Opera House, an institution surrounded by pomp and prestige deemed her modern-day story worthy of telling. And before you rebuke with ‘WHAT ABOUT CARMEN?’, giving the opening night slot to a true story about a character, I mean person, still in the news today is somewhat different. By supporting this story-of-our-time, on one of the most famous stages in the world, where seats frequently go for half my monthly rent, it was giving somebody else a voice for a change.

Sitting in the auditorium with all the other young people felt exciting. Considering the story was so bleak, I was surprised at how exhilarated I felt walking out. I just hope that I can go to the opera with my friends again, sometime soon.

Written by Trinity Laban Alumni: Lucy Drever