Playboy model, cheap seats lure youth to London's Royal Opera opener

Reuters News
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Posted: Sep 11, 2014 9:08 PM

By Michael Roddy

LONDON (Reuters) - The Royal Opera House rolled out the red carpet for young people on Thursday for season opener "Anna Nicole," based on the life of American stripper and Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith whose voluptuous surgically enhanced cleavage attracted a billionaire.

Traditionally the season opener would be a well-heeled event with lavish displays of diamonds and luxury cars.

But in a deliberate bid to cross the generational divide and fill the house with young people, the ROH sold seats that sometimes go for as much as 200 pounds ($325) for prices ranging from 1 pound to 25 pounds, to students and people aged 16 to 25.

The result was an audience that looked - by design - like it might have been more at home in a rock club than an opera house.

The ROH threw in finishing touches, including a short stretch of red carpet on the street outside while pretend paparazzi flashed cameras as the audience arrived. They also sold popcorn during the interval.

"I couldn't wish for anything better tonight," Kasper Holten, the ROH's director of opera, said.

"I think it's the first time in my entire life that I feel like one of the oldest people in an opera house."

The subject matter of the opera, a revival of a 2011 production based on a libretto by Richard Thomas with an eclectic, pop-influenced score by British composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, captivated the audience.

Smith married an oil tycoon 63 years older than she whom she met in a Texas strip club. After his death in 1995 she pursued a lengthy court battle over his estate. Smith herself died of a drug overdose in 2007 amid press scrutiny of a paternity and custody battle over her newborn daughter.

The original production was plenty racy, with pole dancers and a cocaine-fueled party among the colorful touches. Smith was played by Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek wearing prosthetic breasts.

A new flourish had Westbroek twerk briefly, mimicking the writhing body movement made famous by singer Miley Cyrus.

If nothing else, the revival proved that the opera has legs, Hugh Canning, music critic for The Times of London, said.

"I think it's revived very well," he said after the final curtain descended on Westbroek being zipped up in a black body bag. The death of her beloved son Daniel, her unhealthy life style and her addiction to painkillers to deal with the back pain caused by her breast implants led to an early death.

"Who knows if it's going to be an opera for all times...but she is a classic heroine," he said. "If you look at opera, it's the sort of archetypal rags-to-riches-to-rags that has been the stuff of opera right from the beginning of time."

It won over the youthful audience, which gave a huge ovation to Westbroek at the final curtain and to the rest of the cast and the orchestra, conducted by music director Antonio Pappano.

"I'm loving it. It's the first opera I've experienced," Georgina Jones, 21, of London said during the interval.

"I love musical theater but this is another level, the scale of it. It's great," she said.

(Writing by Michael Roddy; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)