By Mike Collett-White, Entertainment Correspondent
BERLIN (Reuters) - The genteel world of opera collides with that of lurid headlines, strip clubs and Playboy Thursday when a new work based on the life of the late Anna Nicole Smith has its premiere at London's Royal Opera House.
"Anna Nicole" is one of the prestigious opera company's riskiest projects yet, both because it leaves Covent Garden open to accusations of sensationalism in a bid to stay relevant and because some of the characters in the story are still alive.
According to the British media, lawyers are nervous, particularly in relation to tabloid star Smith's ex-boyfriend Howard K. Stern whose conviction for supplying her with drugs before her death in 2007 was dismissed last month.
The Royal Opera House has not denied the reports but declined to comment in detail on the work's contents or whether alterations had been made at the last minute for legal reasons.
The press office did confirm that the run of six shows, starting on February 17 and ending on March 4, had sold out.
The company's website called the new work "a celebrity story of our times that includes extreme language, drug abuse and sexual content," and imposed a minimum age of 16.
"This new opera is provocative in its themes, exciting in its bravura style and thrilling with its sheer contemporary nerve," it added in language normally reserved for reality TV.
"Anna Nicole Smith's life made the news -- you can bet this world premiere will too."
DUTCH SINGER IN LEAD ROLE
Smith died aged 39 of an accidental prescription drug overdose in Florida. At the time of her death, the former pin-up model and reality television star was embroiled in a long-running legal battle over the will of her late husband, billionaire oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall.
They had married when she was 26 years old and he was 89.
Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek will perform the role of the voluptuous blonde in composer Mark-Anthony Turnage's latest work, under the direction of Richard Jones.
The libretto is by Richard Thomas, no stranger to controversy after his musical "Jerry Springer: The Opera" offended many Christians and sparked a record number of complaints when it was aired on BBC television in 2005.
In a recent piece written for the Times newspaper, Thomas admitted to feeling nervous and spoke of the risks involved in putting on a new opera.
"Unlike musicals, operas don't have the luxury of a preview period," he wrote. "There is one dress rehearsal and then BANG -- opening night."
He also defended the choice of Smith as a subject for a major new production at one of the world's top opera houses, pointing out that many mainstay opera heroines led far-from-exemplary lives.
"No one goes to the opera to judge Salome or Carmen."
Westbroek played one such colorful role at Covent Garden as recently as 2006 when she starred in "Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk," about a bored housewife who resorts to murder and adultery in order to escape her lot.
The main difference with Smith is that she is not fictional, died only four years ago and a court battle involving claims to part of the fortune left behind by her late husband have rumbled on in U.S. courts.
(Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)