Buxom and Doomed: The Odd Marriage of Opera and Anna Nicole

Has the New York City Opera's bid to woo new audiences with a tragic tabloid tale backfired?

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Stephanie Berger / Courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music

From left: Brett Azar, Sarah Joy Miller as Anna Nicole Smith and Henry Akinsanya in a Scene from "Anna Nicole" composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Opera House on Sept. 15, 2013.

Say “Anna Nicole Smith opera” anywhere in America and eyes will roll. The assumption is that it is a satiric work, mocking a woman emblematic of excess and desperate to be loved by anyone with some to spare. But Anna Nicole, which opens The New York City Opera’s 2013-2014 season, isn’t just a collection of bawdy songs with creative terms for breasts (though it is that too), rather, British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage invites the audience to revel in Smith’s fun and fast life, then implicates us in her ascent and fall.

The libretto is based on the career and tragic 2007 death of the actress, model and reality television star who was anointed Playboy’s playmate of the year, wedded an oil tycoon, and later sued for his fortune in a case heard by the United States Supreme Court. In Anna Nicole Smith, the opera’s creators tapped the ideal muse to inject a dose of reality television pizzazz and horror into an out-moded opera company. The New York City Opera’s efforts seem doomed anyway, as the opera’s board voted Thursday to file for bankruptcy next week after the show’s run ends.

Ironically, turnout, including a few sold out shows, confirms a robust appetite for the Anna Nicole Smith story more than six year after her death.    Hers is the ever-popular tale of a girl and a dream. She abandons her hometown “backwater” for the big city (in this case, Houston, Texas) to be a star. There, Anna Nicole dances in a gentleman’s club and is pressured into purchasing the silicone breast implants she’s known for. Soprano Sarah Joy Miller sings the part, interjecting southern drawl into arias.

But the audience’s laughter fades into silence as Smith’s story becomes more harrowing, the American dream dissolving into tragic overreach. Smith’s pursuit of money and power and her entourage’s hard partying ways result in a surprisingly high body count for two short acts, all captured by the hackneyed lenses of performers dressed as television cameras.

By the chilling finale, as a camerahead zips Smith, dead from an overdose, into a body bag, Smith could be as epic a tragic figure as Carmen in the opera of the same name, or Violetta in La Traviata, both fallen women who die, like Smith, on stage.

The fallen bombshell as objet d’art is nothing new. That obsession likely dates back to Eve and her apple. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec documented working class French nightlife and its Can Can girls in simple, block-colored lithographs in the late 19th century, reproductions of which still adorn the walls of college dorms. Jean Renoir’s 1954 musical comedy, French Cancan, immortalized these women of the night and how they found stardom at the hand of a nightclub proprietor looking to profit.

(READ: Confession of An Unapologetic Downton Abbey Bootlegger)

In the 1950s, the pop art movement became a natural home for appropriations of defaced celebrity women. Andy Warhol’s famous diptychs of Marilyn Monroe—he painted 20 silkscreens of her in the months following her 1962 death—probe the tragic celebrity, and the abetting media. Monroe, of course, was Smith’s idol, and the Internet is full of musings on the women’s  similarities. Cindy Sherman’s 1981 Centerfolds series—a collection of garish images that read like magazine covers gone horribly wrong—continues to probe the dangerous worship of cover girls.

The saga of the fallen woman is still popular of course. Former child starlet Miley Cyrus’s suggestive MTV Video Music Awards performance has hardly been forgiven. Now, she’s being slammed for how she looks on recent magazine covers. Another troubled, one-time child star, Lindsey Lohan, plays herself in artist, Richard Phillips’, short film that debuted at the prestigious Venice Biennale art festival.   It’s unclear whether such works critique the endless appetite for celebrity, or serve as further star worship. But the message is that fans prefer tragic women to happy ones.

If Lindsey and Miley are fallen bombshells, they’re a new breed. Today it’s more about sexual liberation and constant communication than silent sex kitten allure. And yet, the most talked about opera in years stars a woman who was perceived as the older trope—the archetypal dumb blonde sex object. That stereotype, like in some circles, opera itself, could be considered an anachronism, a casualty of the new prerequisites for celebrities—be assertive and dynamic, churn out Twitter updates, be on all the time. Own your fame.

Anna Nicole Smith wasn’t around for this level of voracious appetite for the minutia of the celebrity existence.  The buxom model died years before Twitter broke the fourth wall between celebrities and their fans, but her story remains a readymade parable, ripe for use, consumption and even abuse. Maybe Anna Nicole is simply the celebration of how Internet culture has diminished the useless practice of labeling women hollow dumb blondes, or that at least, now, labeled women have more forums in which to label themselves.

While Anna Nicole the opera has been well-attended, it’s been critically panned as “cold and heartless” and “a piece of terrible garbage.” Not great news for the New York City Opera’s future—having raised a mere $1.5 million of the $7 million they need by September’s end to run their scheduled productions, they are poised to enter bankruptcy proceedings just after the show ends.  Presenting the tragic bombshell’s opus as the hail Mary pass to attract a broader, non-opera-going audience, while praying for a windfall, feels a bit like Smith’s efforts to revive her career in the late 90s, selling wedding photos to People magazine, and welcoming cameras into her baby daughter’s crib. Sadly for the New York City opera, it looks like fueling America’s celebrity fetish still won’t save them any more than it did Anna Nicole.

Yarrow is a TIME contributing writer and journalist living in Brooklyn. @aliyarrow