Anna Nicole: The Opera

It ain’t over until the bleach-blonde lady dies.

Anna Nicole Smith’s soap opera life – and death – is set to be made into an opera by some of the same folks who turned the “Jerry Springer Show” into high art.

News of the seemingly unlikely commission by London’s Royal Opera comes as opera houses, ballet companies and orchestras are struggling all over the U.S. amid dwindling donations and a dip in government support.

The outlook is grim: the Connecticut Opera is going out of business after 67 seasons; the Los Angeles Opera and the Metropolitan Opera in New York are cutting performances; the Baltimore Opera declared bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the Miami Ballet laid off eight dancers and the Dance Theater of Harlem slashed salaries by 10 percent.

Americans for the Arts, a nonprofit group, estimates 10,000 arts organizations could go under this year, The Associated Press reports. Meanwhile, the Kennedy Center this month announced an "Arts in Crisis" program that will offer free assistance to performing arts managers.

Amid the dire situation, an opera about a woman who became a household name based largely on her implants, marriage to an ancient millionaire and death from an accidental prescription-drug overdose seems like a joke.

Except it isn’t – in fact, setting the sad saga of Anna Nicole Smith to music might even give the arts a boost.

The notoriety and camp value of the Smith name will put some fannies in the seats – as the strippers in “Gypsy” sang, “You gotta have a gimmick.” If the work is any good – the “Springer” opera was surprisingly well received – it could create new fans of the form.

At least it’s different. Edgy material, like the expected upcoming sexy Mark Morris take on Haydn's “L'isola disabitata” by the Gotham Chamber Opera, needs to be mixed in with traditional staging of classics like “La Boheme,” “Madam Butterfly” and “Aida.”

But the best – and more long-term – hope for the arts could come out of YouTube, of all places.

The online video powerhouse is starting its own symphony orchestra – and anyone with Internet access can help pick the players.

YouTube invited musicians from around the world to submit audition videos. Professionals whittled down the entries, and now the public can choose from among the finalists.

The winners will get trips to New York to prepare for an April 15 concert at Carnegie Hall, under the direction of San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. In addition, video entries will be mashed up into what’s being billed as the first ever collaborative virtual performance.

The youth, energy and talent exhibited on the YouTube videos is staggering – and a free advertisement for the power of music. The  promotion also gives ordinary folks, via the vote, a direct connection to what’s long been an inaccessible art form for many.

Think of the kids who might be inspired to take up an instrument and become lifelong patrons of the arts. Think of the adults who might be prodded off their couches and go to their local philharmonic, maybe even becoming modest donors. Think of the future interactive audience-building possibilities: A YouTube opera. A YouTube ballet. A YouTube movie.

The voting ends on Feb. 22. Take a look and listen, cast some ballots and do something positive for the arts at a bleak time.

It’s going to take some creativity to bolster the performing arts and keep them going with new audiences. The online effort is one positive step, and provides a new punchline to an old joke: How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

YouTube. YouTube. YouTube.


Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992.

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