Anna Nicole and the misrepresentation of contemporary music

I toddled off to the Royal Opera House website this afternoon to take a peek at what they’ve got up for the premiere of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s new opera Anna Nicole, based on the life of Anna Nicole Smith, which is premiering there tonight. I had a look at the cast list, read their little blurb then got all excited because there was a TRAILER! Woot! Pulled it up and watched through – pretty slick, although I wasn’t entirely sure the music was what I’d have expected from Turnage but people do make sudden stylistic about-turns from time to time… then I saw this little line, half cut off at the end of the details in the right-hand column:

Please note the music in the trailer is not the music from the opera.

What???! ROH has got a shiny new opera from an exciting, well-known and respected composer. It’s got a titillating and media-catching subject. Surely this as good as an opera house can dream of? A pre-built audience of fans, and exciting subject matter to spread the publicity further than those who would normally come to such a thing. So why is a key marketing component not using the music in the opera? It’s not even Turnage’s music in the trailer, but a song called ‘Heartbreak’ by Age of Consent (thanks to for that little snippet).

There are two things here which cause me to feel outraged.

The first is the sheer disrespect to Turnage – if they’re using someone else’s music to advertise his opera, what does that say about what they think of his work? I know that in the film industry, using different music in the trailer is standard practice – but that’s in an artform which is primarily driven by plot and visuals, unlike opera which is primarily driven by the music. If the trailer was made very early on, before the score was finalised, then why didn’t they use something else by Turnage which would give an accurate representation of his style?

The second is what damage is this is likely to do to the cause of improving the general public’s understanding of contemporary music? How many people will have seen that trailer and decided to give opera a go, who then will be confronted by a totally unexpected and not always easy musical style? How can we expect those people to have anything but a negative reaction and to chuck the whole opera/new music experience into a box marked “don’t try again”? The trailer seems to have been around since early January and has been linked to from all sorts of places – and People Magazine’s website to start with – which will have given it excellent broad exposure to an audience who are likely not familiar with Turnage’s music or the genre of opera in general – how are they supposed to assess whether they’ll enjoy it on the basis of what they see and hear? Managing expectations is the first step in creating happy audiences.

And happy audiences are what we should be aiming for, not just bums on seats. Happy audiences means that not only does ROH get a ticket sold, but they might get another ticket sold in future. They might sell a CD. Other people might sell CDs and tickets. Happy audiences = a happy new music industry. Unhappy audiences = a suffering new music industry.

So I’ve been trying to think of why ROH might have done this. And I can only think of one reason: they (or at least their video producers) are scared. They are so scared of what the public might think of Turnage’s music and scared that perhaps nobody will come that they have chosen to misrepresent the work. Because I can’t see it as anything but misrepresentation. A lot of articles I’ve seen about the opera now have embedded that video trailer, so it appears without that quiet little disclaimer, so many people who’ve seen it – I would venture to say “most” – I nearly missed it – won’t have that snippet of information and only those of us who have at least a passing familiarity with Turnage will know that the music isn’t his.

If an organisation like the Royal Opera House doesn’t have the courage to promote a musical piece with the music that’s actually in it, by a significant and respected composer – what chance does the rest of the world have to see if they like it? What chance do we ’emerging’ composers have that we can ever get the general public to listen to our work?

If you have a different idea about this, then I’d love to hear it in the comments – and if I’ve got something wrong, please correct me! I’ve hunted high and low on the internet and failed to find anything that supports a different theory than what I’ve got here, and I can’t find any way to justify this move by ROH at all, much as I’d like to. Comment away!