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Always larger than life, Anna Nicole Smith gets opera makeover

By Richard Allen Greene, CNN
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Anna Nicole Smith opera opens
  • "Anna Nicole" premieres in London Thursday
  • "She wasn't just this dumb blonde," composer Mark-Anthony Turnage insists
  • It's a rags-to-riches story plus a cautionary tale, served with tequila and sugar, its librettist says
  • Anna Nicole Smith belongs on the same stage as Carmen, the Royal Opera House declares

London, England (CNN) -- Anna Nicole Smith, the surgically enhanced Playboy Playmate who died of a drug overdose at 39, always dreamed of being famous. But even she would probably be shocked to see where her story has now ended up.

"Anna Nicole," the opera -- yes, the opera -- premieres at London's Royal Opera House Thursday.

The life of the Texas-born stripper who married a multi-millionaire more than 60 years her senior, then spent the rest of her life fighting his heirs over his money after he died, might not seem to belong on the same stage that hosts Verdi and Puccini.

But the more Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas looked into the life of the reality TV star, the more convinced they were that it was the stuff of opera.

"She wasn't just this dumb blonde," said Turnage, the composer. Her life "touches on so many things, it seemed to encapsulate the 21st century."

"She is fame incarnate," said Thomas, the lyricist, who's most famous for turning Jerry Springer's trashy TV talk show into an opera.

Both men see Smith's beloved son Daniel as a key part of her life, with Thomas describing her as a single mother "doing anything she could to look after her son.

"It's a very universal story," Thomas said. "I wanted to tell a story about a single mom. She makes some good choices. She makes some bad choices. Then she runs out of choices."

Thomas and Turnage fell for Anna Nicole while writing the opera, they say.

"I hope it comes through that we as writers love her," the composer said.

He found sympathy for her elderly, wheelchair-bound husband, J. Howard Marshall, as well, he said.

"Everyone assumed he was just a dirty old man," Turnage said, but he found "part of their relationship... quite touching."

Much of the opera is comic, the co-creators say, although it turns bleak at the end.

Daniel died shortly before Smith did, and Turnage and Thomas both describe that as a tragedy.

But the opera, they insist, is entertainment.

She is fame incarnate
--Richard Thomas, "Anna Nicole" librettist

"It is a rags-to-riches story and a cautionary tale all chucked into a blender and whooshed up with three bags of sugar and two bottles of tequila and poured over a two-hour time frame," Thomas said.

"It's not a docu-opera. It's not a bio-pic," Turnage said. "We're making a drama out of it. This is entertainment -- a romp, before the end, which is the reverse."

It wasn't quite what the Royal Opera House was expecting when it commissioned the opera from them, its head admitted.

"We were shaken -- then stirred -- as we saw the possibilities," said Elaine Padmore, head of opera at the institution.

The opera was in development for years, she said, and was the first time she had to call in lawyers as part of creating a new work.

But she knew what she was getting into when she commissioned a piece from Turnage, who has composed original work for the English National Opera before, but never the Royal Opera House.

"We wanted something contemporary and modern," she said, and while she doesn't want to "upset" regular opera-goers with a tabloid tale, she does want to draw in new audiences.

It seems to be working. All six performances sold out before the show opened.

"People like to see their own life and times on the stage," she argued.

And although the life of Anna Nicole Smith may have been shocking on its own terms, in many ways, it's par for the course for opera, she said.

"Bad girls have always been the stuff of opera," she said. "Think of Carmen and Traviata. Why shouldn't Anna Nicole join opera's women?"

Journalist Stephanie West contributed to this report.