What do Anna Nicole Smith, the Mexican drug cartel, and Ian McEwan’s tragic love story Atonement have in common? No, we’re not referring to the betrayal, dysfunction or even the class-driven drama of these high profile debacles – although, all three certainly share these “attributes.” We’re talking about opera. Believe it or not, all are inspirations for current – or soon to come – operatic productions. Contraband and Betrayal, the narcocorrido-based tale of one female drug smuggler’s journey across the border and killing of her lover is currently on run in Mexico City. Anna Nicole: The Opera written by the guy behind the Jerry Springer opera, will premiere at the Royal Opera House in London in 2011, and Craig Raine’s reinterpretation of McEwan’s Atonement will hit the stage in 2013 at a yet-unnamed German opera house.
Hence, the ultimate in Western high culture meets the paradigm of low – and in the case of Anna, subterranean. Why the current pop insurgence? Perhaps the best answers comes from the creators of the works themselves:
• On “Contraband:” “[The] story had all the elements of high drama necessary for opera, almost like a modern-day Mexican “Salome,” Los Angeles-based visual artist Ruben Ortiz Torres and Composer Gabriela Ortiz told the LA Times. “But the presence of a contradictory myth and the context of a volatile drug conflict in Ciudad Juarez added challenging twists to the project.” We’re not sure if “twists” is the most appropriate descriptor, but we won’t deny the entertainment factor.
• As for “Anna Nicole Smith: The Opera:” “It is a very sad story – a larger-than-life American story, as was Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West,” shares Elaine Padmore, the director of opera at Covent Garden. “It will be a slice of our times – of America in the pre-Obama days.”
In fact, it’s just like “the work to Zeit-oper, the German subgenre of opera popular in the 1920s and 30s, in which socio-political issues of the times were tackled,” The Guardian continues. “We have Lucia di Lammermoor, so why not Anna Nicole Smith? She also led a diva-like life.”
• And “Atonement:” “It’s not a chamber piece, that’s for sure,” Ian McEwan told the Times. “You can do some very big dramatic things with this. If you were thinking of a large-scale opera then what springs to mind is 380,000 troops on the beaches of Dunkirk [a key setting in the story]. That would be quite a choir…. The more I thought about it the more I thought that it had themes of yearning and thwarted love which would make it very operatic.”
Operatic, indeed. After all, as much as we tend to think of genre as the stuff of blue blooded grandeur, we also can’t deny that the drama fueling opera has never been pristine. Just look at Puccini’s classics, Mascagni’s staples: “Madam Butterfly” tells the story of a 15 year-old girl married and abandoned. Cavalleria Rusticana’s about unwanted pregnancies and cold-blooded murder. Not too different from the words of tabloids, the narratives of Hollywood.