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USC Thornton pair’s work on Anna Nicole nears final curtain

by Evan Hollins and Jenevieve Ting
Sarah Joy Miller plays the title role in the New York City Opera production of Anna Nicole, with support from Peter Erskine on the drums at left. (Photo/Stephanie Berger)
Photo: Sarah Joy Miller plays the title role in the New York City Opera production of Anna Nicole, with support from Peter Erskine on the drums at left. (Photo/Stephanie Berger)

Anna Nicole Smith landed a lucrative Guess modeling contract, became the face of Lane Bryant and was chosen as a Playboy Playmate of the Year — all before the age of 25. She married an oil tycoon 62 years her senior, fought a highly publicized legal battle over his estate, became a reality TV star, suffered the devastating loss of her son and gave birth to a daughter, which resulted in a controversial paternity and custody battle after her untimely death.

USC Thornton School of Music faculty members Peter Erskine and Rod Gilfry are working together for the first time to tell the absurd, unbelievable and surprisingly poignant tale of the pop culture phenomenon, now on stage in the New York City Opera (NYCO) production of Anna Nicole, which is currently playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

“It’s crazy that two USC professors would be performing together, in New York, in such a production,” Gilfry said.

Erskine, a renowned jazz drummer and USC Thornton’s director of Drumset Studies, is currently on sabbatical from USC to perform as lead drummer in the production’s pit orchestra, where he is joined by USC Thornton alumnus Montgomery Hatch, a percussionist in the NYCO orchestra.

Erskine played the drums in the world premiere of Anna Nicole at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, in 2011.

“It was very exciting to be there as the piece took its first shape,” Erskine remembered. “But this New York production is a very invigorating one in that the New York musicians have a little more of an incisive bite with the music.”

Gilfry, a two-time Grammy nominee and associate professor of vocal arts and opera, added that the musical element for Anna Nicole makes the production anything but a typical opera.

“There are lots of different styles — jazz, blues, even music from strip clubs and rock and roll,” Gilfry said. “It’s amazing how these styles have all been blended but are still cohesive.”

Erskine has performed at the Bastille Opera in Paris, the Berlin Philharmoniker, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and will soon be featured in a concerto premiering in Bonn, Germany, in November.

“I’ve got quite a bit of practicing to do for that,” he said.

In addition to his performance work, Erskine’s autobiography, No Beethoven — the title being a reference to a joke that band mate and founder of Weather Report Joe Zawinul once made about “not being afraid of no Beethoven” — is due soon in print form.

“The concert work is certainly the focus of what I’m doing right now,” he said. “I’ve got this music on my brain, but these other things feature heavily on my to-do list.”

Since its premiere, Anna Nicole has received positive attention from both audience members and media critics alike. The New York Times recently lauded the opera for portraying Smith as an “improbable operatic heroine … a striver determined to get ahead and raise a son in any way possible.”

To feel sympathy for a woman who so often was the subject of ridicule and incessant paparazzi is a credit to composer Mark-Anthony Turnage, who Erskine has known for nearly 20 years, and librettist Richard Thomas, who previously composed the award-winning Jerry Springer: The Musical.

Gilfry referenced the opera’s multidimensional take on Anna Nicole Smith’s life, acknowledging that it could have been easy for the production to result in a full-blown farce rather than a well-balanced, poignant tale.

“[We] made fun of Anna Nicole Smith, but in a loving way,” Gilfry said. “We also make fun of reality TV and America’s obsession with fame and money. It’s a story that can only happen in America.”

Added Erskine: “There’s some strong commentary that takes place concerning our culture and the things that people do. Ultimately, I think that [Anna] is not so dissimilar or unlike other heroines in opera and certainly much less pathological. I mean she’s not murdering or poisoning anybody, you know?”

The experience for Erskine has been rewarding. From getting a brief cameo on stage to drumming with the orchestra pit to working with a fellow faculty member on the other side of the country, Erskine summed up his connection to the production.

“It just feels like all the dots are connected in a really nice way,” he said.

Anna Nicole will take its final bow on Sept. 28 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House.

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