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Operas about pop-culture figures don't delve deep

Somewhere in celebrity heaven, Marilyn Monroe is doing a great job of jinxing those who capitalize on her icon status by degrading it.

Somewhere in celebrity heaven, Marilyn Monroe is doing a great job of jinxing those who capitalize on her icon status by degrading it.

She let the recent film My Week With Marilyn off easy: Whether or not it was great, its fond portrayal of the star went far in awards ceremonies and did well at the box office. Not so lucky was Monroe's ex-husband Arthur Miller, whose three Marilyn-inspired plays were unsuccessful. Now a growing body of "celebrity operas" has taken her on in Waiting for Miss Monroe, which recently premiered in the Netherlands. Of the same ilk: Anna Nicole, now out on an Opus Arte DVD, about the sad, late wannabe Anna Nicole Smith. The unseemly results might fly in Europe but are less likely to do so here.

The central problem seems to be this: When icons are taken off their pedestals and given life as real people, do they have anything important to say? And if they don't, do they lose their significance? That question arose after the movie Death Becomes Her, which featured a faux-Marilyn cameo appearance.

Authors often approach their idols like tongue-tied fans. They seem not to know what to do, so they stick with the same hoary biographical headlines and amplify them in various ways, effectively using the starry subject's fame as a shortcut to higher-visibility notoriety. But in the long run, such operas, films, or plays are doomed to a short shelf life because the characterizations are simply thin and inconsequential.

Similar problems dogged Woody Allen when he resurrected Ernest Hemingway, Salvador Dali, and Gertrude Stein in last year's hit Midnight in Paris. But he had the sense not to put them at the center of his plot. My Week With Marilyn earned immunity from all that thanks to being based on a memoir of someone who personally knew and seemingly understood the real-life Marilyn while she was in England in the 1950s shooting The Prince and the Showgirl.

For modern composers, trafficking with Marilyn is a Faustian bargain: She can give them wide exposure, but often inspires similarly tongue-tied music. Ezra Laderman is a far better composer than his Marilyn (premiered in 1993 at the New York City Opera) would suggest, but that's the piece he's most likely to be judged by. Dutch composer Robin de Raaff is a hugely engaging composer, but you wouldn't know it from Waiting for Miss Monroe, at least to judge from radio broadcasts of its June premiere in Amsterdam.

Librettist Janine Brogt seized on the idea that the real-life Marilyn was too shy to talk to a psychotherapist in person and so communed with a tape recorder, a conceit allowing all sorts of interior monologues. But what do we hear? She's guilt ridden because Clark Gable, her co-star in The Misfits, dropped dead when the film was finished. She rages against Jacqueline Kennedy for squelching her affair with Jackie's then-president husband.

Much of the time, De Raaff doesn't try to set this stuff to music: The operatic Marilyn just declaims the words against an atonal backdrop of what many would call "scary movie music." The one surefire tune: Her famous 1962 crooning of "Happy Birthday" for John F. Kennedy is reenacted in ways that reflect the pain behind her tortured relationship with him. Did somebody get paid to come up with such obvious ideas?

At least there's some substance to be had, considering that Monroe's body of work - from her comic "Old Black Magic" in Bus Stop to her rapid-fire repartee in The Prince and the Showgirl to her terrifying meltdown in The Misfits - grows more interesting as time goes on.

Not so with Anna Nicole Smith. Anna Nicole, premiered last year by the Royal Opera at Covent Garden with a first-class score by Mark-Anthony Turnage and a cast featuring such stars as Eva-Maria Westbroek and Gerald Finley, is a fantasia on America's excessive pop culture, a semi-surreal circus in which trailer-park-born people lose dignity they didn't know they had by selling whatever they've got to a novelty-hungry celebrity culture.

Though it's old news to us, the sordid materialism behind that tired concept known as the American Dream still seems gleefully novel and curiously fascinating in Britain. We follow Anna Nicole through marriages, childbirth, restaurant jobs, talk shows, fame, and, of course, her downfall, which the opera suggests started with backaches from her breast implants and the painkillers she took to ease them.

But this tale of inner emptiness - both Anna Nicole's and her world's - works at cross purposes with opera, which fills empty stock characters with a music that gives them flesh and bones. Same problem with another British hit, Jerry Springer: The Opera, father of all celebrity operas, which between 2003 and 2005 had 600-plus performances - but in a West End theater, not in an opera house.

Though Jerry Springer is musically substantial, composer Richard Thomas and lyricist Stewart Lee didn't demand that their piece be taken as seriously as Anna Nicole or Waiting for Marilyn were. The talk-show host is accidentally shot and in Acts II and III goes first to purgatory, then to hell, which looks like his TV studio with the Act I characters reincarnated as Jesus, Satan, Adam, and Eve.

At least there's no fake pretense of redemption. But you still have this large theatrical mechanism (with a 33-member cast) dedicated to . . . what? "I don't solve problems. I televise them," confesses the fictionalized Springer. That's not much to take home.

Accounting for the popularity of these works isn't difficult. Springer and Anna Nicole deliver big, ticket-price-justifying shows that also encourage their well-educated, well-heeled audiences to feel utterly superior to poor damaged souls who will do anything to be noticed. Much as I admire the creativity behind Anna Nicole, it conveys the sort of smug condescension that builds a toxic dynamic with its audience, giving very short shrift to the profound tragedy of her addiction, and the agony of having her son die before her.

This lack of compassion isn't just a matter of British operas about America. Queen Victoria also seems to cast a damning shadow over Thomas Adés' Powder Her Face (coming this season at Opera Company of Philadelphia) about the so-called Dirty Duchess, the lascivious Margaret Campbell, Duchess of Argyll. Such figures are perhaps best left as silent templates, contemplated for their exterior imagery amid the shifting values and fantasies of any given time.

Marilyn, are you listening? Can you do something about this?

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