Opening night of the New York City Opera’s Anna Nicole brought a little Hollywood-style dazzle to usually demure Downtown Brooklyn. The opera’s subject matter, the tragic life of buxom model/reality star/trophy wife Anna Nicole Smith, drew the hippest of the hip to the steps of the Howard Gillman Opera House at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM). Artists, art lovers and curious types stood alongside the most fashionable cigarette smokers in Brooklyn, eager to catch a glimpse of the spectacle onstage. The audience entered the opera house’s doors unaware that the show would be the New York City Opera’s last, as the lights of the brand new Barclays Center gleamed in the distance.
Anna Nicole is a raunchy spectacle and dark examination of contemporary culture by composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas. The score draws from 20th Century classical music, rock and jazz, and is performed by a full orchestra (plus a jazz trio). Although Anna Nicole’s style is sleekly contemporary, its form is rooted in operatic tradition, with its alternating recitatives and arias, plush orchestration, and virtuosic vocal technique. The opera’s sordid focus, the image-obsessed and morally depraved Anna Nicole Smith, provides commentary on our current cultural obsessions with celebrity, “reality” media and digitally-enabled self-promotion. Director Richard Jones emphasized this point-of-view by dressing dancers as video cameras. Aletta Collins’s choreography fixated the “cameras’” movements on Sarah Joy Miller, the soprano in the marquee role. It’s rare for opera to feature a subject plucked from popular culture, and the choice clearly resonated with a young, creative crowd: most of the opening night audience was under 40 years old, an anomaly for opera in New York City.
For years, Brooklyn has been a haven for young artists because of relatively low rents, roving creative communities and proximity to Manhattan, and this contingent was well-represented throughout Anna Nicole’s run. Yet, from the steps of the artistic haven that is BAM, the perennial tension between culture and commerce was visible as Barclays Center rose into view. The controversial sports and entertainment arena has contributed to the transformation of Flatbush Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn from a gritty strip of hardware stores and cheap restaurants, into a bustling center of chain retail outlets, luxury condos, and rising rents.
Like the storefronts of Downtown Brooklyn past, Anna Nicole, despite its success and resonance was ultimately unable to stand its ground against the tides of economic change. Two weeks after the opera opened, the New York City Opera suspended operations and declared bankruptcy: Anna Nicole’s strong ticket sales were unable to surmount the significant debt. The timing of the New York City Opera’s closure (after it’s blockbuster performance at BAM) highlights the unstable footing for arts institutions, as Brooklyn evolves into a commercial center.
In Anna Nicole, money is the driving force behind all of the protagonist’s decisions. It motivates her to transform her body into something that is meant to be appealing yet is ultimately false. It distracts her from the needs of her son, whose ill-fate is the result of her deceiving herself into believing that she seeks fame and fortune for his benefit. Thanks to the lights of the Barclays Center, it is impossible to overlook the parallel between Anna Nicole and the change sweeping through Brooklyn. Like Anna Nicole Smith, as Brooklyn takes on moneyed patina, it risks bruising its cultural core.
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Christina is an opera singer and arts administrator living in New York City. After receiving a Bachelor of Music in vocal performance at Manhattan School of Music, Christina took on a full time position at the institution as a Production Coordinator. A life-long music student, Christina is currently studying voice with Jane Olian.
Christina’s passion for arts education led her to the Arts and Cultural Management program at Pratt Institute for her graduate studies. Upon graduation in June 2014, Christina hopes to pursue a career in arts education management.
Jacob is a saxophonist, woodwind player, composer, arranger, bandleader, and music educator based in Brooklyn, New York. He was raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, where he took up the saxophone at age ten, and was trained as a classical saxophonist. He received a degree in classical saxophone under the tutelage of Steven Jordheim at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He is currently a band teacher at KIPP Infinity in Manhattan.