Offensive. Incredibly offensive. Just about everything about Anna Nicole’s life as portrayed by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas is offensive. From how her father failed her as a child, to how the father of her child failed both mother and child, to how an opportunistic octogenarian preyed on her fear of once again toeing the poverty line and exploited her desire to be something more than a small-town waitress.

Anna Nicole’s story is offensive, and Turnage and Thomas pay extravagant homage to this. The tragic tale is told primarily by the media: a group of reporters, who expound and comment on the unfolding story, Greek chorus style. A pithy choice, as it is indeed because of the media, that, for better or worse, we know about Anna Nicole’s existence at all.

Something that I found particularly disturbing is how Thomas’ libretto, as we were told Anna Nicole’s back story, had the audience howling at the dirt poor “hicks” of Mexia, Texas, at how excited Anna Nicole was to go to Houston, even at the giant Wal-Mart sign that descended towards the end of Scene 3. But, as she and her fellow coworkers subsequently began to trudge across the stage singing of the woes of low wages, the audience laughter began to die down–being poor and out of options wasn’t funny anymore.

Turnage’s score is all about pure texture cleverly clothed in the intended affect for a given scene. Clusters and non-tonal lines ride around familiar contours (e.g., as the energy rises, so do the notes), and the orchestration communicates a few different genres; Sondheim-esque musical theater, dramatic opera aria, some sort of jazz/rock hybrid.

Sarah Joy Miller shone in the role of Anna Nicole, not only singing the part extremely well, but offering top notch acting. The opera rests on the singer’s ability to acquire your sympathy, and Miller’s performance truly drew you in. I so desperately wanted to stop her from getting that boob job, which, because it led to a pain-killer addiction, effectively ended her life.

Anna Nicole’s life is of course perfect opera fodder, the tragic story of a doomed woman buffeted about and manipulated by an unfeeling and greedy world. It’s as if, like Rigoletto’s Gilda, Anna Nicole was cursed from the start.

Many, many thanks to my friend Elizabeth Keenan-Penagos for the tickets. This review is of the 25 September 2013 performance.

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