Creator of Jerry Springer opera turns gaze on saga of Anna Nicole Smith

The co-creator of the controversial hit musical Jerry Springer: The Opera has got another icon of modern American pop culture in his sights, the late glamour model Anna Nicole Smith.

Richard Thomas is writing the libretto to a score by Mark-Anthony Turnage for a contemporary opera about the tragic life of the former Playmate of the Year, to be staged at the Royal Opera House.

The production, still in the early stages of development, is intended to be shown on the main stage at Covent Garden, accompanied by a 90-piece orchestra.

Thomas said: "It's an incredible story. It's very operatic and sad. 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."

Smith, who was born in Houston, Texas, in 1967, found fame in Playboy magazine, becoming the 1993 Playmate of the Year. Her second marriage to the octogenarian billionaire J Howard Marshall, who was 63 years her senior, led to a lengthy legal battle over his estate.

In 2002, Smith starred in her own television show, The Anna Nicole Show, which was dropped two years later because of poor ratings. She also made cameo appearances in films.

In 2006, Smith announced she was pregnant and in September of that year, gave birth to a daughter, Dannielyn. Three days after the birth, her 20-year-old son Daniel died in her hospital room while visiting his mother and newborn sister, from a lethal cocktail of drugs.

Later that month, Smith married her attorney, Howard K Stern, who claimed to be the father of the baby, in a ceremony in the Bahamas. But their marriage was to be short-lived. In February 2007, Smith was found dead in a Florida hotel room, from an accidental overdose of prescription drugs.

Mr Stern then became embroiled in a paternity battle with Smith's ex-boyfriend Larry Birkhead, a photographer, who was shown by DNA tests to be the father of Dannielyn.

But Thomas does not intend to focus on the paternity suit. "For me, it ends when she does," he said. "It's an American story. I love American culture. Especially for opera, the stories seem to work on a grander, more epic scale. They seem more extreme – it's a blessing and a curse."

Jerry Springer: The Opera, based on Springer's television programme, written by Thomas and Stewart Lee, ran in London from 2003 to 2005. It then went on a tour of the UK, and earlier this year made its New York debut at Carnegie Hall with Harvey Keitel in the title role.

The show, which contains swearing and features a nappy-wearing Jesus who admits he is "a bit gay", sparked a major controversy when it was screened on BBC2 in 2005, attracting 55,000 complaints, following a concerted campaign by the organisation Christian Voice.

Thomas is currently working on his first live piece since Jerry Springer: The Opera, a dance production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse called Cattle Call.

Combining dance and musical theatre, and choreographed by the Javier De Frutos – who won an Olivier award for choreographing Cabaret in 2007 – Cattle Call is set in a corridor where performers are waiting to audition and in the wings of atheatre. "It's a cross between Chorus Line, Waiting for Godot and The Kids from Fame," said Thomas.

After its run in Leeds, the production will move next month to The Lowry in Salford Quays and the Northern Stage in Newcastle upon Tyne. Thomas also hopes to create a longer version for the London stage.

Cattle Call opens at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on Wednesday and runs until next Saturday

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