There are words -- broad concepts, even -- that few should reasonably expect to be sharing space in the same part of our brain. Anna Nicole Smith and opera are just such words.
Then how to explain "Anna Nicole," commissioned by London's Royal Opera, mostly acclaimed by critics there in 2011 and having its U.S. premiere Tuesday (through Sept. 28) in a coproduction by the New York City Opera and the Brooklyn Academy of Music?
One person who doesn't find the juxtaposition bizarre is Richard Thomas, the librettist, who says he suggested the aesthetic improbability to composer Mark-Anthony Turnage. "Anna Nicole at the opera house!" he exclaims to me in a phone interview, fully enjoying the sound of the exclamation points. "Massive orchestra! Irresistible! If you're going to do an opera, do an extreme subject. Or else, why bother?"
In fact, opera has been more receptive than theater to real people and events in recent years. Perhaps the size and scope of opera are better suited to elevating reality, even banality, into something closer to myth. New York has seen "Nixon in China" (1987 at BAM; 2011, the Met), "The Death of Klinghoffer" (1991, BAM), "Harvey Milk" (1995, New York City Opera), "Dead Man Walking" (2001, City Opera) and "Dr. Atomic" (2008, the Met).
Peter Sellars, the boundary-pushing, brilliant and / or infuriating director, collaborated with composer John Adams for "Nixon in China," "Klinghoffer" and "Dr. Atomic," which deals with the history of the nuclear bomb. "I love that doing a piece of opera makes twice as much noise as doing a piece of theater today," Sellars told me in an interview before the "Klinghoffer" premiere. "In theater, people are always saying, 'Well, this doesn't work, that doesn't work, and the second act is too slooow.' Well, in opera, of course, the second act is slow. That's what opera is."
It was Sellars who went to Adams and librettist Alice Goodman with the idea for "Klinghoffer," the opera that dared to take on the 1985 hijacking of a cruise ship by Palestinian radicals and the murder of a Jewish-American passenger. What had surely seemed, for starters, unstageable, tasteless and opportunistic, turned into something complex and meditative. Naturally, the creators were accused of being either pro-Arab or pro-Israel. "We don't want you to leave the theater thinking this or that," Sellars told me. "We just want you to leave the theater thinking."
Clearly, "Anna Nicole" resides on a different planet altogether. But Thomas says he believes it will make people think about the woman behind the Playboy centerfold and tabloid fodder in a new way. "Of course, at first glance, this seems like a kitsch idea," he concedes. "But it resonates with contemporary themes. She was a single mom who did her best for her kid. She made bad choices and, suddenly, ran out of time. It's a classic morality tale."
He asks me to imagine this set in Versailles instead of the Hollywood Hills. "The Countess de Anna marries the rich, old baron," he says, evoking comparisons with brand-name romantic operas. "There's a love triangle, greed, an untimely death. It's a classic story.
"She was almost the apotheosis of no-talent. She didn't write plays or songs. She didn't tap dance or sing. She became a global superstar by selling all she had to sell -- her life. This is 65 percent comedy, but the last part is very bleak and tragic. By the end, you're crying for her. In hindsight, she was archetypal. In retrospect," he jokes, "this is a very conservative idea for me."
Around now, you need to know that Thomas wrote both the book and music for "Jerry Springer: The Opera," the smart and enormously enjoyable 2003 commentary on the bottom-feeding celebrity culture that America released into the all-too receptive world. The show played London theaters, not opera houses, but hired classically trained singers with low inhibitions to sing the gorgeous faux-Baroque choruses, gut-wrenching counterpoint and introspective faux-operatic arias of pathetic misfits on a re-creation of the Springer TV show.
"Anna Nicole" will be performed here in director Richard Jones' London production, with an ensemble of 65 and a 59-piece orchestra. Sarah Joy Miller makes her debut in the role as Anna. Except for the singer playing Anna's mother, it has an entirely new cast. It also has an appropriate amount -- that is, a lot -- of raunch, including a chorus urging the young high school dropout to get big new breasts. (Breasts, however, is not the operative word.) "It's a fantastic moment in the first act," Thomas enthuses, "every voice raised to heaven telling her to get some . . . "
How much is true? "This is an opera, not a documentary," he says, adding that, despite her having lived her life in the press, "It was very hard to find what the truth was."
Of course, after years of re-enactments, reality TV, fact-based fiction and fictionalized history, it feels almost quaint to ask about the line between truth and interpretation. He says the script has been "continuously pored over by lawyers and barristers, lest the work end up as a great law case."
He adds that the line people care about is the line between the truth and the phony. In other words, it takes audiences, not attorneys, to know the difference.
WHAT "Anna Nicole"
WHEN | WHERE 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sept. 24, 25, 27 and 28, Brooklyn Academy of Music, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn
INFO $25-$235; 718-636-4100, BAM.org