A tragic tale made for the stage

A TRAGIC heroine killed by her own hand.

A baby abandoned by death, heir to an immense fortune. A mother who dies five months after her beloved son. A man struck down in his youth. Fortune denied. And that’s before you ever get to the backstory of the ancient Croesus, or the chorus of grasping lovers. So far, so operatic.

Then there’s the drugs, the fried chicken, the addiction, the weight gain, the weight loss, the implants, the botched cosmetic surgery, the modelling career, the reality show, the Playboy shoots, the strip club, the dirt poor childhood, and the declaration “I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout nothin’.” Oh, and the messy death from accidental overdose, followed by paternity suits and a 15-year court battle over millions and millions of dollars. Anna Nicole The Opera — are we ready for it? (Apparently so. When the Guardian newspaper polled its readers as to whether the life of Anna Nicole Smith was opera fodder, 78% agreed. How traditionalists will react remains to be seen.)

Anna Nicole The Opera came about when Tony Hall, director of the Royal Opera House, requested something contemporary when commissioning Covent Garden’s forthcoming performance. Instead of rehashing another ancient myth, he wanted something a bit more modern. The composer Mark Anthony Turnage, who had previously been involved with Jerry Springer The Opera (a roaring, if controversial, success, once people got over the initial shock), came up with the story of Anna Nicole Smith upon which to base the work.

Anna Nicole will be played by Dutch soprano Eva Maria Westbroek when the opera opens next week. Westbroek, more familiar with the work of Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and Wagner, compares Anna Nicole to the character of Salome, because both were propelled by sexual compulsion and self-destruction.

The Anna Nicole story lends itself to modern myth: tawdry and greed driven, with great beauty and ugliness, all driven by an insatiable hunger. Hunger for cash, for fame, for love, for drugs, for food. Hunger for more, more, more. It was this hunger which finished her off, because with Anna Nicole, more was never enough. A trailer-trash Marilyn, both compelling and repellent, her tabloid-coloured life drew us in like a slo-mo car crash unfolding in front of our screens. She was dead at 39.

In 1967 Vicky Lynn Hogan was born dirt poor in Texas. Using her appearance as a means of escape, she became Anna Nicole Smith, and in 1991 met an ancient billionaire, J Howard Marshall, in a Houston strip club. They married in 1994 when she was 26 and he was 89. Although they never lived together — he was in a wheelchair, incontinent and suffering from memory loss — they spent the last year of his life spending his money together.

When he died in 1995 and left her a fortune — $474 million — his family had a fit, and she became an unlikely folk heroine as the billionaire’s son contested the will. With the billionaire and his son, and the stripper wife 62 years his junior and her son all dead, the case rumbled on, with Anna Nicole’s baby daughter at the centre of the legal inheritance battle. Last year a court finally ruled that Anna Nicole’s only survivor was not entitled to her mother’s dead husband’s millions, and the fortune returned to the enraged bosom of the Marshall family.

Confused? Not as much as Anna Nicole, whose bathroom cabinet heaved with an A to Z of legal drugs — Aldactazide, Decadron, Demerol, Imipramine, methocarbamol, Propulsid, Seldane, Synthroid, temazepam, Vicodin, Xanax — which she washed down with booze, and pepped up with cocaine.

Made famous thanks to her improbable marriage and pneumatic appearance, yet with no idea how to manage that fame, Anna Nicole became a metaphor for Attack of the 50ft Woman: she ate, she drank, she screwed, she snorted, she blundered, she slurred, she puked, she died.

She devoured everything in her path, and was in turn devoured by her own unconscious creation.

By the time she died, Anna Nicole Smith had moved a long way from Vicky Lynn Hogan — externally, at least. A Playboy model, Guess jeans model, a bit-part actress who made terrible cameos in terrible movies, and a reality star, she was also the mother to two children, Daniel — from a relationship in her teens — and Dannielynn, now four. Daniel died aged 20 of a drugs overdose in his mother’s hospital room days after she had given birth to her daughter live on television in 2006; his mother died just months after him in 2007. Greek tragedies don’t come close.

The shadowy figures behind Anna Nicole’s enormous, intoxicated flamboyance — even her dog was on Prozac, and had its own psychotherapist — were a series of men. While her elderly husband adored her enough to give her everything, her later lovers were less straightforward.

Several men stepped forward claiming paternity of Dannielynn; it was not Anna Nicole’s boyfriend and lawyer Howard K Stern, but another lover, Larry Birkhead, who turned out to be the child’s father. There were allegedly six potential fathers, including the deceased billionaire, whose elderly sperm she had allegedly had frozen, and Frederic Prinz von Anhalt, the husband of 94-year-old Zsa Zsa Gabor, who alleged that Anna Nicole and he had been lovers for a decade.

There are a lot of ‘allegedlys’ around Anna Nicole Smith. The opera warns of strong language, sexual representation, and drugs. From Vicky Lynn Hogan to the opera house via money, drugs and death; you couldn’t make it up.

* Anna Nicole The Opera opens at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London on February 17.

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