TV on the Opera Stage

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Often, operas are accused of overly-romanticizing the unromantic: Seamstresses die of consumption in a tenement-like garret while singing impossibly high notes, courtesans die of consumption in a comparatively well-appointed bedroom while singing impossibly high notes, naïve geishas die of ritual stabbing (hey, they can’t all have TB).

However, no one can accuse director Richard Jones of overly romanticizing the expiration of tabloid and reality television queen Anna Nicole Smith in Mark-Anthony Turnage’s Anna Nicole. Receiving a kiss of death from Gerald Finley’s smarmy lawyer Howard Stern, Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, clad in a fat suit and dingy white sweats, falls into a black body bag, popping pills as her mother sings: “You can pray, you can dream, you can wish, you can try. Just another way of saying that s--- happens and then you die.”

Anna Nicole Smith was far from the stuff of traditional opera audiences, however her life story is described by librettist Richard Thomas—who also wrote the musical Jerry Springer: The Opera—as “absurdly beautiful,” “eccentric” and “of the medium of opera” in the bonus material on Opus Arte’s DVD release of Anna Nicole, released last month.

Anna Nicole is no mere opera-tization of Smith’s hit reality TV show. Watch an episode of the latter against the former and you’d swear that they portrayed two radically different women (though the opening chorus singing “Anna, Anna, Anna Nicole” bears a passing, post-minimalist semblance to her theme song on E!). It charts Smith’s rise from trailer park mediocrity to a buxom Houston pole dancer to the drug-addicted widow of an uncomfortably old tycoon and lover of a lawyer described at turns by the chorus as “Svengali,” “Darth Vader,” “Killer of Bambi” and “Yoko Ono.” In her tragic trajectory, Turnage’s Anna Nicole has more in common with a fallen heroine like Handel’s big-dreaming Semele, an apt comparison given that Anna Nicole aspired to be Marilyn Monroe and New York City Opera’s 2006 staging of Semele cast the mortal as the Marilyn to Juno’s Jackie-O and Jupiter’s JFK.

Still, Anna Nicole wouldn’t have been Anna Nicole—or Anna Nicole—without her television show. And given that so many opera composers have spent recent years exploring films for fodder, is it a surprise that television has made its way into the consciousness as well? Julia Child and her cooking show were channeled by Lee Hoiby for Bon Appétit! long before Julie & Julia. Ted Hearne incorporated newscasts following Hurricane Katrina into his Katrina Ballads.

“It’s really not that different from what composers and librettists have done throughout history: Look for sources where there’s already a sense of familiarity,” says composer Jake Heggie, who has made operas out of novels (Moby-Dick) and movies (Dead Man Walking) and whose eight-minute opera Again plays at Carnegie Hall this Friday as part of the program Opera Shorts.

Again features the characters from I Love Lucy (Lucy, Ricky, Fred and Ethel) and places them in an unfamiliar setting. Vitameatavegamin and chocolate assembly lines are substituted for an original plotline about the repetitive cycle of spousal abuse that serves as a metaphor for rich, immortal and famous reruns. When Heggie describes it as “a commentary on abusive relationships, but also a commentary on what draws us over and over again to certain situations and certain relationships in their lives,” it doesn’t sound all that off from a commentary akin to Don Giovanni or Pelléas et Mélisande.

“If you think historically about pieces for the lyric stage, dramas with music, at first it was famous myths because everybody knew those gods and goddesses, knew their stories, it was just interesting to hear how the piece was going to be done on the stage with the music,” explains Heggie, who adds that other source materials like legends, novels, plays and movies began to creep into the repertoire as cultural currency expanded. “It’s looking for wherever gods and goddesses are hiding, and we happen to find them hiding in the four characters of I Love Lucy, without repeating an I Love Lucy episode.”

Opera on television was a popular art form in the mid-20th-century, offering composers like Menotti and Britten to write works for a medium outside of the stage and allowing hosts like Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson to take singers like Martina Arroyo and Beverly Sills out of the opera house and place them in living rooms across the country. However, the migration here is opposite, but one that seems poised to catch on (would that Rossini were around for Hogan’s Heroes to create a POW camp buffo that could make use of his male choruses in works like Le Comte Ory).

But even that fad may pass by mercurially—operas like Nico Muhly’s Two Boys have jumped onto stories of the perils of the Internet and social networking Web sites, a medium that resonates as fully with audiences today as Verdi’s thinly-veiled Risorgimento politics did on his Italian compatriots in the 19th Century. Imagine what would have happened if the familial characters of Il Trovatore were all on Facebook.

Television in opera: A way of the future, a fad of the present or an extension of the past? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and weigh in on what television shows you think would make for grand opera fodder.