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Meet Opera's Anna Nicole Smith

Sarah Joy Miller
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?

 

Anna Nicole Smith fought the trolls all her life. Are there trolls in the opera world? I haven't had anything like that, thankfully. But maybe I'm not looking hard enough.

Will this opera enter the classical repertoire? In a hundred years, will audiences still watch La Boheme, Tosca... and Anna? [Laughs.] Oh gosh. Hard to imagine. But this is an important piece for the time we're living in.

Anna had an Amazonian body type. You do not. You're more runway model than ruebenesque. Oh, thank you!

How do you bulk up for the role? Well, I depict her from such a young age. And what a lot of people don't realize is that she was very tiny-chested as a young girl, before she had work done. So it works in terms of seeing the extremes of transformation because I start out as young and girlish, and then I wear these extraordinary prosthetic breasts, and then, in the last act, I wear a fat suit to simulate her weight gain. Beyond that I've been eating like crazy, but the thing is, working this hard, it's so hard to keep the weight on.

Our hearts bleed for you. How did it feel to be big girl for once, and how does that inform your physical and musical choices? It's a window into her psyche. Her drug use was getting so out of control, her weight was, I think, a way of suffocating herself--it was like she didn't want to be around any more. So to have a suffocating suit helps to feel where she may have been mentally. And as a singer, I've never had a lot of weight. So to feel this sturdiness is a completely different sensation.

Does it change the sound of your voice? It comes down to strength. And with opera, so much of that strength needs to be relaxed strength (if that makes sense), so having size gives you a feeling of strength, but there's a relaxation to it. So I like to make sure I'm not too thin. It does make me feel better on stage.

I'm going to tell my wife that. I'm not putting on weight, I'm gaining "relaxed strength". There you go. Take some opera lessons and make it realistic!

Opera lessons and Pizza Hut? That's a great deal. Do you have a personal favorite line in the libretto? In one of Howard K. Stern's arias in act II. He's basically singing about how they can capitalize on Anna, and make money off of her: "What else do you got for the yard sale of your life?" When you look at Anna, when she was pretty and sexy, of course, she sold that. But then when she gained all the weight and became a little ridiculous, she still sold that. She was her own version of Lucille Ball. Not only was she exploited, but she exploited other people, and I love that.

And what's Anna's best line? My aria at the very end. She sings: "Tired now, Danny. Momma's nearly there/ Nothing left for me/ Man I got so close/ I had the dream, but lost it before I knew it/ You know, the usual/ Made some bad choices, made some worse choices/ Then ran out of choices/ All my life I was plain wrong/ I was weak when I thought I was strong."

Wow. That's pretty fantastic. And you have an album of arias coming out too, right? That's right, coming out the same day we start Anna.

Will you be in the lobby selling merch after the show? [Laughs] Quick change and then--smile! Maybe not. But you can buy it in the lobby!

Would you ever play another tabloid train-wreck? Maybe Lohan the Opera? Hmmm. I might need a palate cleanser after this.

Thanks Sarah.

Anna Nicole is at BAM from Tuesday, September 17th to Saturday, September 28th. Tickets are available now.

Tom Cowell is a comedian. Follow him @mrtomcowell, or mrtomcowell.com.

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