The reception in London was mixed, but most critics reveled in the subject’s trashiness, praised the creators’ deftness, and congratulated the genre on its inclusiveness. “I’ll eat my six-gallon hat if it’s not a stonking great hit,” wrote the Telegraph’s Rupert Christiansen. (It was, even if you can’t trust a British music critic with cowboy gear: Evidently he conflated a six-shooter with a ten-gallon hat.)
Smith’s story lends itself to satire, and Turnage gave in to the impulse. “I was determined to write a comic opera,” he says. “I kept trying to keep it light and quick, which is hard for me.” He succeeded by helping himself to a stash of recognizable references—“not pastiche, exactly, but familiar elements that you break in to something new.” Critics have described Anna Nicole as jazzy, partly because in the past Turnage has paid homage to Miles Davis in his scores. But Smith’s tinseled drama played out on a different planet entirely—not a very fertile one, from an opera composer’s point of view. “If I’d gone into eighties music or Texan music, which is what she grew up with, it would have been even more pastiche,” Turnage says. Instead, he distilled a kind of manic highbrow burlesque, with heavy-tread rhythms and fast-moving vocal lines that stick close to Thomas’s wordy text. For the strip-club scene, he opted for what he calls a “sleazy blues,” slow and smoldering, though far more sophisticated than anything you might actually hear at the Bada Bing!
The more he talks about Anna Nicole, the more discomfited he becomes, and it’s hard to tell whether it’s because he really regrets writing such an exciting and virtuosic score, or because for him it has already drifted into the past, along with everything else he’s ever composed. His music afflicts him once he’s let go, even when it makes everyone else ecstatic. “I’m always polite, and I’ll go to rehearsals and everything, as long as I don’t have to go and see it endlessly. Luckily, I’m coming to the opening and leaving the next day.”