Put your ear up to the magnificent walls of the Royal Opera House and you might expect to hear the strains of Verdi or Wagner.
But in the past few weeks, if you listened closely, there was an entirely different chorus drifting from the doors: the scritch-scritch of lawyers' red pens and the grunting of classically trained singers learning to pole dance. Strain even harder and you might have heard the distinctive stylings of former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones.
Not your average night at the opera house, but Anna Nicole, which opens in London on Thursday night (Feb. 17), is not your average opera. Its subject is Anna Nicole Smith, the American tabloid sensation and ultimate multihyphenate for the modern age: The stripper-Playboy-model-celebrity-litigant-reality-star-premature-overdose was found dead in a Florida hotel room four years ago this month, at the age of 39.
Now, her story is being told by two stars of modern theatre: composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas (who previously chronicled the world of fame-hunting in Jerry Springer: The Opera). Its main roles are sung by two other stars of the classical world: Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek as Smith; and Canadian baritone Gerald Finley, who plays her lawyer and lover, Howard K. Stern.
Of course, Stern is still alive - one of the few main players in the saga who remain with us. Anna Nicole was predeceased by her son, Daniel, who also died of a drug overdose, and her husband, billionaire J. Howard Marshall, who was more than six decades older than his 26-year-old wife when they married in 1994.
Stern is quite able to sue - he just had a conspiracy conviction overturned in relation to supplying drugs to Anna Nicole - and that may account for the expensive scrutiny the Royal Opera House's lawyers are giving the libretto.
For the man playing him, a real-life figure in the background presents certain challenges.
"It's not an impersonation," says Finley, the baritone born and raised in Ottawa, who now makes his home in England. "Given that there are people still alive - people with rights to privacy and simple human respect - we have to say from the outset that this is an interpretation. I don't play an archetype, and I don't play Howard Stern from a purely historical perspective."
We won't know until the opera has its world premiere on Thursday whether he will be singing about Stern's widely publicized paternity battle over Smith's daughter, Dannielynn: Like the rest of the opera (and completely unlike Anna Nicole's actual life), it is shrouded in mystery. Intriguing bits of information have trickled out - that a scene featuring Anna Nicole orally pleasuring her wheelchair-bound husband has been trimmed, and that one aria consists entirely of the names of prescription drugs consumed by the principals. Apart from that, we know that the entire run of six performances is sold out and that John Paul Jones will be playing bass as part of the onstage band. Oh, and that there has been much hand-wringing over the place of a former chicken-shack waitress and implant enthusiast in the sanctified realm of opera.
Thomas, who upset several apple carts with Jerry Springer: The Opera, wrote a rousing defence of his new project in The Times: "People ask me if she's worthy," he wrote. "What's 'worthy'? And who gets to decide? Everything is a fitting subject for an opera. Every life lived contains glory and tragedy. If we live our lives on a scale of one to 10, then most of us, most of the time, experience something between three and seven. Anna was ones and 10s from beginning to end."
Of course, the world of opera has always been full of damaged, ambitious women, from the murderous Lulu to the carnal Salome. Finley recently starred in Mozart's Don Giovanni at the Glyndebourne Festival, and says, "There's nothing more dangerous and sexual than that." One of his signature roles is Robert Oppenheimer in the opera Doctor Atomic, by John Adams, the composer who has also tackled current affairs in Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer. "The joy of this piece is that it's so contemporary," Finley says. "Opera isn't sacred ground."
After Turnage and Thomas worked on the piece for three years and through 10 drafts, the composer dubbed Anna Nicole "a comic horror story." To that end, the score will be more melodic and informed by popular culture than anything Turnage has written. The singers, contrary to usual opera-house practice, will use some amplification. Says Finley, "Three-quarters of the evening is very up, very exciting, with lots of reasons for people to have smiles on their faces, and then the last part is genuinely tragic."
As for the rumoured pole that was installed in a rehearsal room to teach opera singers the art of the shimmy, Finley - who is nominated for a Juno Award for his CD Great Operatic Arias - laughs and puts it in perspective: Instruction was offered in the early morning, though he didn't take advantage of it: "I admire those who did, because they're a lot stronger for it. That is one workout."