Eva-Maria Westbroek is renowned for singing some of the biggest, loudest roles in opera. She’s now tackling a big character in a more euphemistic sense.
The Dutch soprano is playing the surgically enhanced party girl Anna Nicole Smith in the world premiere of “Anna Nicole” at the Royal Opera House in London.
The work, which opens tomorrow, has raised anticipatory eyebrows. Apart from the fear that Covent Garden is dumbing down, there have been rumors of simulated sex scenes on stage.
“It’s done in a way that doesn’t bother me at all,” says Westbroek, who squeezed a phone interview with me into her rehearsal schedule. “The director is careful about it. I’ve done more troubling things on stage.
“In Shostakovich’s ‘Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk’ at the Royal Opera there was much more touching and fondling. My main worry wasn’t about sex. It was that the piece was simply going to make fun of Anna Nicole. That’s not the case.”
To counter the “dumbing down” argument, the Royal Opera has fielded its biggest guns at the piece, which is by U.K. composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas (writer of “Jerry Springer: the Opera”). The company’s music director Antonio Pappano conducts, and the staging is by Richard Jones. The cast includes star baritone Gerald Finley.
That’s a lot of top-drawer talent for the sad, even sordid, story of a front-pumped woman who married a billionaire 62 years older, and who died from an overdose of prescription drugs in 2007.
“The piece doesn’t just laugh at her for her mistakes,” Westbroek says. “People forget that there was a tragic element to her story. Her 20-year-old son died in her bed, a few days after she gave birth to his stepsister, and a few months before her own death. She cared more about her son than anyone in the world.
“The opera is about a young woman getting ahead in the world, excited about her life, struggling to support her son. It begins with a lot of humor. At the end, it’s bleak. It’s a mix of comedy and tragedy.”
Does she worry about playing a real person? “Anna Nicole was so iconic, and she lived such a highly reported life, that she’s almost not a real person,” Westbroek says. “Gerald Finley, who plays Anna Nicole’s boyfriend Howard K. Stern, suggested to me that we’re playing archetypes. It’s a piece about how we live now, our attitudes. That seems right.”
The poster, which shows Westbroek as Anna Nicole, has astonishing verisimilitude. Was she surprised? “Yes, I couldn’t believe it was me,” says Westbroek. “It’s amazing what can be done with a lot of makeup and a blonde wig.” And the artificial enhancements? “They’re enormous,” says Westbroek. “As expected. I won’t be the only one wearing them in the opera. You’ll have to come see.”
“Anna Nicole” opens tomorrow and is in repertory through March 4 at the Royal Opera House, London. Information: http://www.roh.org.uk or +44-20-7304-4000.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)