From Tabloid Trash to High Art

She had it all -- fame, beauty, a body that just wouldn't quit.

She married a tycoon many decades her elder and many millions richer -- whether for love, money or both, no one ever really knew.

But when he died, her golden age died too. She went from strutting her stuff on set to defending her reputation in court. She gave birth to a daughter without knowing the identity of the father, three days before her son died of a drug overdose.

Once revered, now ridiculed by former fans, the fallen star died a year later under circumstances mysterious and murky, a victim of fame and the hangers-on that clung to her because of it.

It's a tale so tragic, it verges on Shakespearean. It's also the story of Anna Nicole Smith. And now it's the subject of an opera.

Composer Richard Thomas is writing the libretto for an opera based on the life of the late Playboy playmate, to be staged at London's Royal Opera House in 2010. Thomas, the co-creator of "Jerry Springer: The Opera," called Smith's story "incredible."

"It's very operatic and sad," he told U.K. newspaper The Independent. "She was quite a smart lady with the tragic flaw that she could not seem to get through life without a vat of prescription painkillers."

That's one way to look at it. Another: Smith was a big-breasted, blond bimbo, tabloid trash that catered to the lowest common cultural denominator. Is her story really appropriate for the opera?

"I think it's wacky. It's just not my cup of tea. A soap opera maybe, but her life was already a soap opera," said Michael Kammen, Cornell University professor of American cultural history.

But maybe Thomas is onto something. Every age has its inspirations. During the Renaissance, scientific advancement stirred art. In the 1960s and '70s, the Vietnam War fueled rock 'n' roll. So now, considering the 24/7 nature of the 21st century's celebrity obsession, maybe it's only natural that tabloid trash should inspire opera.

Smith, Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan: These are our tragedies. The lurid details of their lives can be boiled down to tales as old as time.

Smith: buxom beauty burned by rich husband's hoity-toity family. Spears: single mom scorned. Lohan: rising talent led astray by substances and the people who peddle them.

Hollywood's rife with stars who live fast and die young -- if it's drama you're looking for, there's no better place to get it.

Michael Musto, gossip columnist and critic for the Village Voice, said that one of his colleagues recently referred to Spears' saga as a "Greek tragedy."

"He said that's what makes it compelling to us -- a girl who has everything seeming to lose it all before our eyes," Musto said. "The same goes for Anna Nicole, on a much larger and more tragic scale. So clearly these stories are perfect grist for all the bombast and melodrama of opera. I think it's an excellent fit, and a great way to turn tabloid trash into high art."

Audiences and critics sucked up Thomas' previous cocktail of pop culture and high art. "Jerry Springer: the Opera" won four Laurence Olivier Awards, considered the most prestigious theatrical prize in the United Kingdom, after premiering there in 2003.

Thomas also isn't the first composer to mine "low" culture for the high-brow art form. In the late 1800s, the touring circus known as Buffalo Bill's Wild West rolled into Milan and awed a young Puccini. Because of the show, he went on to make "The Girl of the Golden West," which remains a standard in opera today.

And hell, opera could use a little Hollywood glitz. If Smith is what it takes to get young audiences interested in an age-old art form, cue the blonde.

"The story of Anna Nicole Smith can probably be told in a way that's deeply moving and tells universal truths about human frailty. Just because the tabloids covered it the way they did doesn't mean the opera has to be tawdry," said Marc Scorca, president of opera advocacy organization Opera America. "Opera suffers from a stereotype of being old, European, kind of archaic. New works on popular topics are always good. I'm rooting for the opera -- may it be a really good one."