Meet Opera's Anna Nicole Smith

Categories: Opera

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Sarah Joy Miller
What does a train-wreck sound like sung soprano? Sarah Joy Miller will show you. She stars in the opera Anna Nicole which opens at BAM on September 17 after a hugely successful run in London. Miller is giving musical voice to the waitress/stripper turned pin-up girl, whose rise and fall now look like an appetizer for today's reality-TV obsessed culture, feasting on fame, wealth and death. We sat down with her for a discussion about gold-diggers, trolls, and why singing in a fat suit is so fun.

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You've been in Anna Nicole Smith's skin for months. How are you guys getting along? Do you like the person you're playing?
I've grown to love her. When someone says not-so-nice things about her now, I actually get a little offended. I love her honesty and her transparent desire for love and adoration, and I think that she represents what we all have as far as wanting to be loved and accepted. But she was very open about it and there was something magical about that.

She's a tabloid caricature. How do you humanize Anna Nicole Smith?
We start from so early in her life. I play her from a young age, before all the drugs and implants and all of that and it's a very innocent point of view. Of course we get into all the stuff we're all more familiar with, but she had a tough childhood in Texas. She dropped out of school at 15 and was pregnant by 19. She was trying to care for her son and had a crazy family situation with no real support system. So when you look at it that way it's sort of extraordinary what she accomplished.

Some people think Anna is the archetypal gold digger. Is that unfair?
Interesting question. Looking at her relationship with [elderly billionaire] J. Howard Marshall, I think that she had no understanding of boundaries or what a really healthy relationship looked like. It would be naïve and stupid to say it wasn't about the money, but I think it was also about wanting a family, love and acceptance. Marshall was almost like a father, and it's sort of demented to look at a married couple that way, but that was part of it. And because she had no example of what that sort of relationship should be like, it filled something for her. She said things like that at the time, and I really think she believed a lot of that.

It might have been the only time in her life she ever felt safe.
I definitely agree with that.

Opera is maybe our highest status form of expression. This work is about two of its lowest status forms: tabloid sensationalism and pornography. What can we learn about Anna, and humans in general, through opera that we can't learn any other way?
This piece is so unique: it has jazz elements, musical theater elements... I've never seen anything like it. Plus, if you look closely at any of the well-loved operas --take Violetta in La traviata, Manon... there are similarities, it's just that the stories are so much older, we don't find them as scandalous now. I don't think that it's really all that different. I think there's a lot to be learned from the way this opera was written. It's more than just a sad retelling of a woman's demise. It questions fame in our country and how we tear its recipients down in an operatic cycle. It doesn't blame anyone for that, but it creates a conversation.

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There may be purists who question whether the New York City opera should be performing work like "Anna" at all. What would you say to them?
I love traditional opera. My heart is always in that. I could sing Violetta 72 times and still want to sing it again. But it's important that we have new works because that's how an art moves forward. I can understand: there's a lot of salty language and crazy situations in this opera. But that's what was so incredible: This all happened. And more... we're not even depicting everything that occurred. But there are always people who aren't going to like what you're doing. What great opera didn't premiere to at least one person saying it was awful?


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3 comments
Rachel Patrick
Rachel Patrick

I was definitely more intrigued with this story when I thought the headline read: Oprah's Anna Nicole Smith.

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