Opera review: Anna Nicole

Don't believe the hype.

Anna Nicole
Royal Opera House, London WC2

[Warning: this piece contains language that some readers may find offensive.]

Whoever knowingly scheduled the opening night of Parsifal and world premiere of Anna Nicole back-to-back deserves an award for brazen and brilliant cheek. To move from the sinister purity of Wagner's grail knights, hermetically sealed against lust or human corruption, to the mongrel ruttings and bastard tragedy of Anna Nicole Smith makes quite a statement -- one of the four-letter variety.

With the Royal Opera House's red velvet curtains stained hot-pink, the royal monograms replaced by "A n R", and the stage crowned by a smiling cameo of the buxom blonde herself (framed by two bikini-clad body-builders), it was clear from the start that we weren't in Mozartian Kansas any more. Then Richard Thomas's libretto kicked in -- "I wanna blow you all . . . a kiss" -- and we found ourselves deep in the "cuntalicious" world of Anna Nicole.

A Playboy pin-up turned public disaster, Anna Nicole Smith's progress from "Young, single, flat-chested and in debt" to the wife (and latterly widow) of the incontinent octogenarian J Howard Marshall II drags opera's favourite fallen-woman story into the neon-bright, diamante-encrusted present day. The natural heir to Violetta, Manon and Lulu, her breasts may be larger, her sacrifices greater ("There's no such thing as a free ranch"), but her tragedy as chronicled by Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas (of Jerry Springer: The Opera fame) is decidedly less poignant.

The hype surrounding Turnage's latest opera has been building for over a year. This, we were assured, is the work that will bring new life to a decrepit genre: the Great White (trash) Hope of opera. Judging by the teeny-bopper rapture of last night's audience, its success is certain; new audiences have already been seduced through the forbidding portals of the opera house and have liked what they have found within. There's just one problem -- I'm not sure that Anna Nicole really is an opera.

With the likes of Sondheim, Weill (and even Bernstein, whose melodic fingerprints were all over Turnage's score) stretching the musical vocabulary of Broadway past all expectations, there's little in Turnage's decidedly conservative score to set it apart. Brash, blowsy and bluesy, Anna Nicole is all shimmying trumpets and thumping bass-line. Voices are amplified to cope with the volume coming from the pit, losing that naked voice-intimacy that only opera can offer. Yes it's through-composed, but so is Evita. Trying to convert people into opera by showing them Anna Nicole is like trying to get children to like fruit by giving them Starbursts.

That's not to say that it's not enjoyable -- it is. Act I is perhaps the best theatrical night out currently on offer in London. Miriam Buether's sets are a miracle of artificial colours and flavours; Walmart hoardings jostle up again stripper poles and ceramic Disney animals -- the lifeless sidekicks to this most perverse of Cinderellas. Thomas's libretto (all pre-packaged rhyming couplets, at its best in a crooning lament by the "restless, breastless masses") frames the action with a Brechtian chorus of newscasters, whose probing microphones swarm ever closer as Anna Nicole's death approaches. Turnage's score (driven urgently from the pit by Antonio Pappano) sizzles and sashays along, wry little allusions to The Rake's Progress and even Mahler's Kindertotenlieder punctuating its all-American textures.

With Act II, however, comes more of the same. Short scenes and nagging rhymes keep Turnage's score from the lyric release it seems to seek. In place of reflection, we get new distractions -- a cynical refusal to validate the tragic status of our heroine.

Eva-Maria Westbroek leads the cast with all the southern swagger she can muster. Combining powerhouse vocals with some really rather touching gestures in her Act II decline, she is almost enough to redeem the director Richard Jones's brittle conclusion. Supported by Alan Oke as her husband and an under-used Gerald Finley as lover Stern ("Svengali, feeder, enabler, Bambi-killer") it's hard to imagine the cast being bettered.

Shock-tactics are nothing new in the world of opera. Only last season ENO proved that Ligeti's 1977 Le Grand Macabre still has cheek-reddening impact, and their current Lucrezia Borgia is all but soft porn. Yet if you're going to make the Royal Opera House ring to cries of "fuck" and "cunt" then you'd sure as hell better have a score that can match it for profanity. Modern, fresh and with plenty of charm, Anna Nicole falls short in its music. Anna Nicole might be the one to "rape the American dream" but Turnage is perhaps the greater criminal, plundering the American Songbook for second-hand parts.

Via David Moloney of the Great News For All Readers blog
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The dark, forgotten world of British girls’ comics is about to be resurrected

The UK’s most surreal and innovative comic strips have long been gathering dust. As a publisher acquires the archives, they could be heading for a renaissance.

Comics now exert a massive influence on popular culture, yet those that do are almost exclusively drawn from two American publishers, and mostly exist within one genre: Superheroics.

Comics, though, are a medium, not a genre, and, in acquiring this prominence, American superhero comics have obscured almost everything else done in the medium both in the US and elsewhere.

British comics, from publishers like DC Thomson, IPC and Fleetway, rarely involved superheroes, and were traditionally anthologies, with multiple episodic serials running at all times. They were divided by their publishers into three categories, humour comics aimed at younger children (The Beano and The Dandy remain well-known, although only the former still exists), comics aimed at boys (largely war comics, such as Battle, which also incorporated sports stories and science fiction), and titles specifically targeted at older girls.


All scans courtesy of David Moloney of the Great News For All Readers blog​.

The girls’ titles, particularly, have largely disappeared from common memory, acknowledged only by a handful of enthusiasts. This is odd, as at their peak, they routinely massively outsold the boys’ titles they shared shelf space with.

Bunty (1958-2001) is one of the few girls’ titles to retain any cache, but it had many stablemates and competitors. Some were devoted to straightforward romantic series, and strips with “improving moral messages” (eg. the girl who gets her dream job after helping a blind man out rather than be on time to her interview; it turns out to have been a test).

They also ran features that reflected then contemporary assumptions as to what all girls would/must like (Bunty often had a “cut-out wardrobe” clothes section as its back page), but there was also more variety in tone and content than you might expect.

The Seventies saw the creation of Tammy (1971-84), Jinty (1974-81) and Misty (1978-80). Tammy’s stories were often bleak, and many were variations on the darkest aspects of Cinderella (“Alison All Alone” saw a contemporary girl locked up by step-parents for reasons that are never really articulated).

Jinty ran some relatively normal contemporary school stories, eschewing a jolly hockey sticks angle and pushing something closer to kitchen sink drama (eg. “Pam of Pond Hill”, a Grange Hill-like series set in a comprehensive). But, as time went on, it became darker and odder, running series like John Wagner’s “The Blind Ballerina” (which has been described by acclaimed comic book writer Alan Moore as “cynical and possibly actually evil”).

The lack of credits in most comics in this era meant the audience would’ve been largely unaware that their favourite stories, with their almost exclusively female casts were, like “The Blind Ballerina”, largely written and drawn by men.

Misty creator Pat Mills’ recollection is that while the publishers of the time had many women on staff, most of them saw magazines for older girls and women as the more worthwhile publications than comics.


Women who left a significant mark on these male-dominated titles include Jinty editor Mavis Miller, writer Benita Brown (later an author of historical family sagas set in the northeast which could rival Catherine Cookson when it came to being borrowed from public libraries), and Shirley Bellwood whose consistently magnificent covers for Misty – reputedly largely portraits of her own younger self – were responsible for establishing its aesthetic.

Pat Mills intended that Misty would do to, and for, girls’ comics what his own 2000AD had done with boys’ comics. Whereas 2000AD was, and indeed is, the ultimate science fiction anthology book, Misty would be – as its logo of a bat silhouetted against the moon suggested – unapologetically a horror comic.

Typical Misty serials include “The Loving Cup” (a cursed goblet vessel causes women who drink from it to be possessed by Lucrezia Borgia), and “Winner Loses All” (in which a girl sells her soul to Satan to both save her alcoholic father and become a champion showjumper – the horse is cursed, of course).

Then there’s “Screaming Point”, about a hangman who dabbles in diabolic resurrection of his own clients, or Misty’s longest running single story, “Paint it Black”, in which cursed paints cause a girl quite a lot of trouble. More sci-fi than supernatural – but still within the horror remit – was “The Sentinels”, a serial about two tower blocks in contemporary Britain, which simultaneously exist in the real 1970s and in an alternative timeline where the country has been occupied by the Nazis since the 1940s.

If you’re now wondering why these amazing-sounding stories are no longer available to read, here’s the good news: you may very soon be able to. In August, Rebellion, the owners of 2000AD, bought a vast archive of old classic British comics from Egmont UK (the Fleetway and IPC Youth Group archives), which includes all the above material and more.

Rebellion, initially a computer games company known for the Sniper Elite series, bought 2000AD from Fleetway in, well, 2000AD. Fleetway was also the original publisher of Misty, and so on, although they’ve passed through other hands since.

This is oddly reminiscent of the “hatch, match and despatch” process, where a publisher would “merge” a cancelled comic into another they owned, incorporating the most popular characters and strips into the new composite title. This was the process whereby Tammy absorbed both Misty and Jinty as their sales declined. Mills has suggested that, had he had more direct control, Misty would, like 2000AD, still be running today.

Rebellion has already published a single slim volume of two Misty serials (containing the very odd, and very Seventies, reincarnation drama “Moonchild”, and the genuinely horrifying “The Four Faces of Eve”) and more are planned, but may depend on sales of this volume. If I could take this opportunity to call for a public vote in favour of reprinting Tammy’s startling “Karen, the Loneliest Girl in the World” here, I’d be grateful.


Reprints though, should really only be the beginning. With Rebellion having access to the Egmont archive and its intellectual property, could we see films or television series of some of Misty or Jinty’s best series?

With their female leads, strong emotional content, science fiction and horror aspects and political and social angles, it’s hard to deny that much of the content of Misty or a Jinty has a similar appeal to the kind YA books that become billion-dollar film franchises these days, in the exact same way American boys’ comics do.

It is startlingly easy to imagine opening an issue of Misty and finding a forgotten 1970s strip version of Twilight, or seeing The Hunger Games on the centre pages of Jinty. The main difference would be that they’d both be set in Slough.

With a bit of luck, some of the most peculiar, imaginative and challenging work in British comics could soon be raised from the dead in a new century and in a different form entirely, and then go on to dominate the world. Which, rather appropriately, sounds like something out of Misty.