15 August 2014 at 4.04pm | Comment on this article
Inevitably it’s the extreme side of Anna Nicole Smith that first comes to mind: blonde, busty, noisy, vulgar, provocative, controversial. But engaging drama demands more than flamboyance and the hypnotic draw of prurience. A poignant moment in the second act of the opera Anna Nicole, distills the emotional essence of an altogether more tragic life. This is the very short solo sung by her son Daniel – a minute and a half of concentrated impact, just ten minutes before the opera’s finish.
The music is gentle and even. The orchestral sound is sparse, with strings and celesta, a steady cymbal rhythm and underpinning bass. Add the jazz inflections of the orchestral riff and an easy, rocking rhythm, and the effect is of a bluesy lullaby. Over this, Daniel sings a dreamy vocal line with an improvisational feel. The sound alone is easy listening, shot through with the popular music inflections of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s style: well suited to this modern American tragedy. But in the dramatic context it is far from easy, for Daniel is dead.
Daniel is in one chair, in a body bag. His mother sits in a chair next to him, devastated with grief. What he sings is a list of mood- and mind-altering substances (some legal, some not), including Zoloft, Lexapro and methadone. It is thought that it was from a combination of these three that Daniel Wayne Smith, born on 22 January 1986, died in the hospital room of Anna Nicole Smith on 10 September 2006. He was visiting his mother, who was in hospital in Nassau after giving birth to a daughter Dannielyn three days before. He was 20.
Appalling enough as a true story. But Anna Nicole the dramatic work introduces changes and inventions of characters and events that further heighten the human themes beneath, which is where the impact of Daniel’s ‘drug ballad’ (as the libretto calls it) comes to the fore. Daniel (often called Danny) has been a presence in the opera from Act I: his birth is part of the scene showing Anna Nicole in her home town of Mexia, Texas, married to a fellow worker at a fried chicken restaurant. (This was six years before her second marriage, to the oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II: she was 26, he was 89.)
Episodes in the opera show Danny growing up in his mother’s increasingly strange world. His brief appearance in the Act II party scene emphasizes the unsuitability of Anna’s environment for a young child. As he gets older, he becomes one of the few stable points in his mother’s life. She is constantly protective of him; he is a source of reassurance to her (as in the tense dressing room scene in Act II before an interview on the Larry King Show). Through all this Daniel is seen, but not heard. The only time in the opera he is given a voice of his own is after he has died.
Even more striking is the emotional impact of this one very brief number. It comes after a loud orchestral outburst that portrays Anna Nicole’s deep pain at the death of her son; the contrast with the ballad’s calm is striking. The real-life Howard K. Stern, Anna Nicole Smith’s lawyer-publicist-partner, said after her death that ‘Anna and Daniel were inseparable. Daniel was without question the most important person in Anna’s life’.
In the opera, Daniel’s body is removed from the stage as he sings his final phrase. Anna Nicole in response sings of her own fear that ‘Danny’s so scared. He’s waiting for me. He doesn’t know how to get to the other side’. This is derived from the last interview, tearful and distressed, that Anna Nicole Smith gave before her own death on 8 February 2007. In the opera, Daniel’s seductive voice from the afterlife is a siren song for Anna Nicole. Her final aria begins with the lines ‘Tired now, Danny, Mama’s nearly there. Nothing left for me’.
Anna Nicole runs 11–24 September 2014. Tickets are still available. The first performance is available exclusively to members of the ROH Students scheme with tickets priced £1–£25. Find out how you can join ROH Students.The scheme is generously made possible by the Bunting Family and Simon Robey.