Saturday, 19 February 2011

Sense not scandal - Turnage Anna Nicole

Moral outrage about Anna Nicole has been the best publicity Anna Nicole Smith has ever had. It's raised her value on the celeb stock market by billions. No-one benefits more in the long term than her estate. So what's the deal about the "family" suing Turnage and ROH? First basic rule of journalism -  check the source.

The family in question is Larry Birkhead who came into the picture at a late stage because he had a fling with AN which made her pregnant. Ergo, he gets millions because the kid is his. The most lucrative x of all time! He doesn't want the image harmed? This is the man who has no qualms about flaunting the kid publicly like some kind of freak show. Even AN had a healthier childhood. So promoting this contributes to the "care" the kid is getting. Congratulations, moral outragees.

So the opera is luridly colourful and expletive-laden? It's a style thing, and ironic. Indeed, Anna Nicole the woman comes out rather well in the opera. She's a poor kid who reinvents herself to escape. She was a product of the world around her. "It wasn't God who made Honky Tonk Angels", sang Kitty Wells, C&W star of the 50's.

Turnage has said, "We haven't been cruel about people". Despite the manic mountains of smut the opera is careful not to stray too far from previously published facts. The Larry King scene for example, was seen by millions. Reality like this hardly needs sensation. Indeed, sticking close to public domain may have muted the opera. Gerald Finley's Howard Stern's neutral, almost nice. In January, the case against him was overturned and the opera had to be revised.

Mark-Anthony Turnage is a very major British composer, with a respected body of work - Greek, Three Screaming Popes,  Scherzoid, From the Wreckage, The Silver Tassie (with Gerald Finley) - a random sprinkling over 30 years. He's been resident at the South Bank, the CBSO and the Chicago Symphony. His pedigree's solid. Any important new work is therefore an event, so it's perfectly natural that his latest opera should be a high profile event. This could have been the big break in British opera, given  that Birtwistle is over 75, and no-one but Adès really comes close. (George Benjamin's   Into the Little Hill  is a masterpiece but for chamber settings) Turnage is a good choice from the Royal Opera House bceause his music is not "too" innovative to scare away those who don't like hardcore modern music, and not too dull to drive most serious music folk to tears.  Lots of people had fun at Anna Nicole, who would have run screaming from Ferneyhough.

But the tabloids (and some music writers) don't know anything about modern music. So they focus instead on the lurid subject not the opera.  They don't realize that Turnage's trademark has always been Fusion, blending classical ideas with jazz, pop and rap. He studied with Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. The big difference is that Turnage actually loves jazz and pop, and doesn't use them like fashion accessories. Turnage's fascination with the US is a very English thing in some ways, I think. Some see in Graceland, Las Vegas and Hollywood something completely alien to the dull grey skies and identical grim terraces that epitomize much of Britain. The very unreality and self-invention of America has an appeal, when Britain is still fairly class bound.

Because Anna Nicole is such a powerful symbol, she obliterates all else. I'd  wondered why the publicity focused on her rather than on Turnage's music but the short answer is that most people have no idea who Turnage is or even care much about new music. Which is why most of the publicity focused on Anna Nicole the person not Anna Nicole the music.

Anna Nicole the opera isn't great music, partly, I suspect, because it's subservient to the cleverly strident text, and also to the inhibitions inherent in dealing with real life subjects. John Adams's Nixon in China, for example, is limited because Adam's doesn't have a grip on geopolitics. His Dr Atomic, however, works better because he uses Robert Oppenheimer's own words which open out poetic vistas that can be translated into drama. Turnage's real musical instincts break through in the musical interlude based on Hammered Out which for me forms the centre of the opera. It's punchy, dramatic, energetic and a lot of fun, even if it's not intellectually rewarding. Believe me there is a lot of unbelievably pointless music around that makes Turnage sound like Mozart. Sensation's often been a Turnage thing. There were queues round the block for his The Silver Tassie at ENO in 2000. Less so in revival, but that doesn't change what the music was.  It's life. Turnage's early opera Greek is being revived this summer by Music Theatre Wales, who did Philip Glass's In the Penal Colony so well that it was painful, but artistically potent.

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