Jernigan's Opera Journal

by Charles Jernigan
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Lulu, Very Much Alive and in HD (at the Movies)
November 23, 2015

Alban Berg’s Lulu is, for many opera lovers, like those bitter greens that your mother told you to eat because they were good for you.  Except that it is doubtful that Mom would have recommended anything quite so decadent, déclassé and deranged as Lulu.  It is a work that professional musicians and music critics love, but even now, eighty years after its creation, audiences tend to stay away from it.  Indeed, the multiplex near me had about 25 hardy souls for the opera today, a far cry from the crowd that went to see Otello or Il trovatore.  There seemed to be lots of empty seats in the opera house too, and at intermission I overheard complaints--’I hate this’ and ‘where is the lyricism?’  In the intermission features, the conductor, a Berg specialist, hailed it as one of the most important musical works ever written; the stage director said he had started to appreciate it somewhere around the fourth time he heard it, and by the eighth time he had started to hear the elusive melodies in the score; Susan Graham (Countess Geschwitz) admitted that the music was more difficult to learn than any she had ever undertaken, and that she enjoyed switching over to Fledermaus’ Prince Orlovsky, a role she is currently rehearsing.  Marlis Petersen, the Lulu, has performed the role in ten different productions, but after this one, she is giving up the role.  Asked why, she really did not say.  Perhaps she just wants to spend more time with Mozart, another specialty of hers.  Even for the protagonist, with Lulu, enough is enough.

No; you are not likely to leave Lulu whistling any of the tunes.  On the way home, I turned on the radio.  Lucia’s Mad Scene was just starting on the station that came on, and by the time I got home she had gone tunefully bonkers and collapsed in a plethora of melodious melisma.  It was like washing Lulu out of my mind with a tonal tonic. 

And yet I’m glad I went because the production was fascinating and the performances memorable.  Berg adapted the libretto himself from two plays by Frank Wedekind, Erdgiest (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1904).  Wedekind was an interesting fellow, whose German parents had met and married in San Francisco.  Although Wedekind was born and died in Germany, he always felt a connection to America; his full name was Benjamin Franklin Wedekind.  The “Lulu” plays are even now a little shocking as an unrelenting examination of the brute political psychology of sex and violence.  Some see Lulu herself as an abused girl/woman and others see her as the seductive evil that emanates from the female of the species (one of the plays is titled Pandora’s Box after all).  In any case, the characters run from depraved to pathetic and most, including Lulu, end up dead. 

Berg died before he could finish the third act, and for a long time after its premiere in 1937, Lulu was performed without Act III, often concluded with Berg’s Lulu Suite.  After Berg’s death, his widow asked Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s teacher, to complete the opera, but Schoenberg declined, and as long as Helene, the widow, was alive the opera could not be finished.  On Helene’s death in 1976, Friedrich Cerha finished it from Berg’s sketches.  The three-act version was performed in this country first in Santa Fe, in 1979.   In the 1930’s the Nazis labeled Lulu as “degenerate art” and even a performance of the “Lulu Suite” roused their ire.  The Nazis’ attack caused Erich Kleiber, conductor of the Berlin State Opera, to resign his post and leave Germany.  So the first performance of the incomplete two-act version was in Zurich.

lulu1The opera opens with a Prologue by a circus Animal Tamer, who invites the audience to his “menagerie.”  Lulu is the “serpent,” in the menagerie, the “source of Evil.”  As the opera proper starts, we witness Lulu with a succession of lovers and husbands, including Dr. Schön, his son Alwa, an Artist, Schigolch (who may be her father), her husband Dr. Goll (who dies of a heart attack just after the opera starts), an Acrobat, a Prince, the Countess Geschwitz, a fifteen year old girl, a Pimp, and a series of others until, finally, Jack the Ripper, one of her johns, who does her in. 

On the one hand, we see Lulu’s decline through depravity from a much desired woman/artist’s model to a destitute street whore.  She is the object of desire for every man who sees her, and some women too.  She is both destroyer and destroyed.  Berg’s libretto from Wedekind uses a mirroring technique so that, for example, the men who are her lovers in the first act are played by the same singers who are her lovers in the last act.  The same singing actor who plays Dr. Schön, whom she kills, also plays Jack the Ripper who kills her.

lulu2In other words, the seeming chaos in the story (where only four of the 28 characters have names) is encased in a rigorous architecture where one thing mirrors another and the end balances the beginning.  The same thing happens in the music, which sounds to the untrained ear like cacophony much of the time, but which is based on a carefully wrought mirroring architecture too.  One always hears that this music is so “modern.”  My Gosh, it is eighty years old, and very typical not only of the so-called Berlin School, but of what was going on in all the arts at the time, like Dalí or Picasso or “The Afternoon of the Faun.”  There were many reactions in the first part of the twentieth century to figural realism in art or linear storytelling in literature or classical ballet in dance.  Or tonality in music.  I don’t know what “modern” means, but Lulu  certainly fits into the artistic movements of its time.  In 1937, it was “modern” for sure.

In the case of the Met’s production, Marlis Petersen played a Lulu who was a cypher: she could be the innocent child some see, or she could be Eve in the traditional sexist view of the Garden of Eden, leading helpless men to their doom.  Wide-eyed and blank, she was whatever you wanted to sketch on her.  It was a brilliant and athletic performance, full of sex that was not sexy.  Some Lulus are seductresses; some even play the role naked for part of the time; some are evil; some are childlike.  Petersen was an intellectual object of desire, flashing plenty of flesh and with a naked breast sketched in ink on her costume. 

Wedekind’s drama often pushes us away from involvement with the sexual intimacy we are watching (the opera starts out with an Animal Tamer directly addressing the audience).  Berg’s music pushes us away from involvement too.  Both drama and music are intellectual structures where we think about what happens to these characters with their emotions and desires laid bare.  Wedekind and Berg’s distancing techniques are not unlike the alienation techniques in the theater of Bertolt Brecht.   We are not drawn into their plight as we might be with a typical nineteenth century opera like La bohème.  There are no tears here, but there is exhaustion at the end.  The drama is an onslaught and so is the music.


Petersen’s Lulu was always in motion, jumping around the stage, more acrobatic than the character called “Acrobat.”    Berg calls for a lot of punishing coloratura, and she had it, but you are not looking for beauty of tone here.  The others were uniformly good in an opera which calls for some straight speech, a lot of parlando or sprechgesang and even some singing.  For this opera, being a competent actor is as at least as important as being a good singer.  Ms. Petersen was joined by Susan Graham (Geschwitz), Johan Reuter (Dr. Schön/Jack the Ripper), Daniel Brenna (Alwa), Paul Groves (The Painter/The African Prince), Franz Grundheb (Schigolch), and many others.  All were excellent actor-singers, especially Reuter and Grundheb.  The latter has sung longer on the Met stage than any other singer--around 50 years.  Lothar Koenigs conducted the Met Orchestra in an assignment that originally was supposed to go to James Levine.  The Orchestra, of course, played this complex music superbly.

For me, at least, the production was as much of a draw as the opera itself, and that is a rarity.  South African designer William Kentridge’s fantastic “konzept” worked wonderfully with the fin de siecle decadence of Wedekind and the twelve-tone score of Berg.  The play, the music and the production were of a piece.  Kentridge started from the idea of the painting of Lulu: when we first see her, she is an artist’s model, being painted by “The Painter” (with whom she subsequently has a relationship).  That painting of Lulu forms a motif in the opera which comes up several times, including the end, when Geschwitz brings it to the hovel where Lulu, now a street whore, lives.  Kentridge uses continuous projections of india ink drawings which evidently covered the whole proscenium of the Met stage (although it was hard to tell in the cinema, which thrives on close-ups, not views of the whole; this time I think it would definitely have been better to see the production in the house).  Drawings, many of female nudes, alternated with newspapers (Schön is a newspaper editor), music, portraits of historical figures (including Berg) and the characters, and even dictionary pages.  Although none of the singers ever appeared nude, there were sketches of a breast and pubic hair on their costumes like a quickly drawn sketch on a paper appliqué.  Berg had called for a silent film in the middle of the opera, depicting Lulu’s arrest for killing Schön, her imprisonment, hospitalization with cholera, and escape with the help of the besotted Geschwitz.  Kentridge gave us continuous silent “film” throughout with his projections, which often overlaid the characters like images plastered on their costumes.


It was surreal (it reminded me of something like the Dalí/Buñuel film Un Chien Andolou or German Expressionist Cinema or the late, lamented “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”), but Kentridge himself said the imagery draws inspiration from Otto Dix and other early mid-century German painters whose subjects were prostitution, war injuries, and destitution, and whom the Nazis considered degenerate.  Lulu and other characters donned large white “hands” like those “hands” that football fans wear to indicate that they are “number one.”   Meanwhile, two mime/dancers dressed in formal attire acted out parallel dramas on the sides and with the performers.  One, a woman--a mirror of Lulu--sitting at a grand piano on the side of the stage in Act I, gradually moved to the top of the piano and ended up inside it by the end.  Or was she supposed to represent Berg?  A humpbacked man acted as a surreal butler to the characters, moving props and furnishing them with weapons. 

All of these techniques tended to push us (the audience) away from the ugliness and brutality of the drama, and the emotion too: we got rough drawings of nudes, not nudity; we got projections of slashes of india ink when Lulu’s throat is slit by Jack the Ripper, not blood and gore.  All of this made for a proto-Brechtian presentation where the audience is intentionally “alienated” from the play and invited to think about what it means rather than to be emotionally moved by it (as in Bohème).  Here, the production was the thing to catch the conscience of the audience. 


Kentridge’s collaborators, Sabine Theunissen (Sets), Greta Goiris (Costumes), and Catherine Meyburgh (Production Design), set the action at the time of composition rather than in the 1890’s as the introduction of Jack the Ripper would suggest.  It worked exceedingly well.  The art deco sets and late 20’s/early 30’s costumes worked too, and color seemed to be correlated to mood or meaning--Schön’s garden green suit (and overcoat as Jack the Ripper) fit with Lulu’s “serpent” in the garden of eden, for instance.  Lulu herself goes by many names in the opera--Nelly, Mignon, Eve.  She is Pandora in Classical myth or Eve in Judaeo-Christian myth.  “Lulu” in fact is a name in which the second syllable mirrors the first, capturing the mirror imagery in the story and in the music.  And I imagine that Berg (and Wedekind) intended that the drama mirror us, the audience.  We after all are part of the action, prurient voyeurs of a sort of intellectual pornography.

I think that the production would have overwhelmed everything else including the singers had it not been for Marlis Petersen’s fantastic portrayal: so alive and in constant movement.  But on the whole, Ms. Petersen as Eve-Nelly-Mignon-Lulu was a blank canvas (white was always dominant in her costumes) upon which the desires and fantasies of the various men were projected.  The projection of male fantasies onto a woman mirrored the production itself.  In spite of all the layers of meaning in the opera, in the music and in the production, Lulu herself--‘woman’ in the opera’s terms--remained an enigma, left for the audience to figure out.

Charles Jernigan


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