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ROH Plans Anna Nicole Smith Opera

It sounds like another Jerry Springer or Monkey: Journey to the West – take an outlandish subject, cobble together some tunes and slap the loose label “opera” on it. The resulting press coverage will talk endlessly of forging new paths in opera and a storming of the barricades of High Art. Anna Nicole Smith: The Opera is different, though, commissioned as it is from arguably the best contemporary British opera composer whose name isn’t Birtwistle.

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Mark Anthony Turnage is a very fine orchestral composer and writer of two of the best operas of recent times. He certainly goes for diverse subjects, so maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by this latest venture. His first opera was based on Steven Berkoff’s steely Greek, setting the Oedipus legend in London’s East End to an abrasive, thumping score. It contrasts strongly with his next larger-scale, more lyrical piece, The Silver Tassie based on a Sean O’Casey play about footballing recruits in the First World War.

The Anna Nicole Smith work is part of the Royal Opera’s pledge to produce a new opera on the main stage every two years. Recent offerings have been Thomas Ades’ excellent The Tempest, the derided 1984 by composer/conductor Lorin Maazel and, last year, Harrison Birtwistle’s magnificent The Minotaur.

The soprano Sally Matthews described Turnage to me recently as “just like a pop star… a real cool guy”. Maybe, these qualities coupled with his undoubted integrity will create an authentic way forward for opera.

Who’s to play the breast-enhanced, celebrity-seeking gold-digger though? Sopranos these days are much more lithe than they used to be, often sexy and some downright beautiful, but who can fill the cups of the late Playboy model (suggestions to [email protected] please)? Perhaps the aforementioned Matthews is a good candidate: she’s got the looks, the acting ability and Turnage has written for her before.

With Jerry Springer: The Opera’s librettist Richard Thomas collaborating with Turnage, we could see a genuine mix of cultures that will truly bridge the seemingly insurmountable divide between “high-art” and “populism”. It could be the Lulu of our times.

- Simon Thomas

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