When Frank Wedekind wrote the two Lulu plays, Erdgeist (Earth Spirit, 1895) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box, 1904), Lulu was portrayed as evil. The work was subtitled “A Monster Tragedy.” Reactions were as mixed as the characters’ own reactions to Lulu herself.
It seems people read what they wanted to see. Some thought it misogynist and others saw it as the liberation of women.
When Alban Berg composed his Lulu opera (1929–1935), he was praising the modern approach to Wedekind and sensuality. “At last we’ve come to the realization that sensuality is not a weakness. It does not mean a surrender to one’s own will. Rather it’s an immense strength that lies within us, the pivot of all being and thinking.”
It is also important to note that despite the International Alliance of Women being founded in Berlin in 1904, it was not until 1918 that they got the right to vote in Germany and Poland. The Netherlands and Austria, where Berg was from, followed in 1919.
At the time Berg was composing Lulu, women still couldn’t vote in Spain (1933), France (1944), Italy (1946), Greece (1952), and Switzerland (1971). This said, things were changing for women on a large scale.
WWI had transformed the way women were viewed. They were taking jobs that had previously been reserved for men. If they could work in munitions factories, they must have the constitution and temperament needed to have a voice in changing the political fabric of their times.
Social norms accompanied this shift. Women were now able to mingle with men. It was more common for women to drink and smoke. This would have tarnished their reputation before.
It was this social emancipation that Berg embraced in Lulu.
But somehow, the sensuality had been lost after WWII, and more recent versions had cast Lulu as a horny psychopath. Is that down to the Nazis, who thought Berg’s work decadent and morally corrupt? Is it down to the same movement that demonized being gay? Perhaps it’s just because people keep dying around her, and it is pretty steamy.
But is all that sex in Lulu really necessary?
As the curtain opens, we see the adult Lulu center stage. She stands before an illuminated mattress. To the side, a ring master compares her to a snake. On the big screen, we see her transition from the poverty-ridden streets into the seedy circus of life.
Our actions come back to haunt us.
The story that unfolds is one of a child being molested and then sold into prostitution. Of course she would see her value as being a sex object. And it is not totally unexpected that she would have to disconnect to bear that horror. It is equally understandable that she does what she has to to survive.
Every story has more than one perspective. For Lulu, we did something quite different. We thought it would be interesting to look at an opera from two perspectives.
Christopher Lade (background in music and opera) and I (background in art and design) went together.
Lulu is three hours long and has two breaks. This was perfect for us to talk about what we had seen. We even ran into people we knew in the breaks and could talk to them about it. Isn’t that precisely what you want from a performance: something to spark thoughtful conversation?
To be honest, it was probably good that we went to see something by a 20th century composer. I think I probably feel it more. For me there is more depth of emotion.
That’s probably more about my musical experience than the actual emotion. I like experimental and this was right at the beginning of that. It actually could have been more experimental for me. I also liked that it’s about real people instead of fantasy.
I found the performance of Rebecca Nelsen riveting. I was impressed that most of the time she belted out her songs whilst flat on her back. Apparently, that shouldn’t make a difference, but it did for me. Besides the visuals of it, it had me sketching sound waves in my mind.
All in all I thought the set was interesting and clever. I found the mix of projection and movable walls enhancing without being overbearing. The use of projection hearkened to a time when film was a new medium. It was used to show us what we couldn’t see on stage. It led the eye and controlled our gaze.
There were times I would have made alterations to the set.
My video artist self and interior design self were at odds with the subtitling decisions. I would have modernized the border and typeface as time progressed into the 20s. There were also times when the subtitles were just too busy against the backdrop, like in the Parisian door.
Besides my aesthetic objections, I think they missed a good chance to give us much needed info. They would choose one line and leave it up for a very long time. It was more like a caption or headline for the scene. I had a very hard time understanding the words they were singing and could have used a bit more.
That said, it was very good that Oper Leipzig included the synopses in both German and English in the program.
I loved Lulu’s costume selections. She linearly moved from lifestyle situation to situation with her own personal sense of style. The fabrics and designs were integral to telling her story. Well done, Jorine Van Beek.
Unfortunately, Lulu is not on the schedule for 2019. I hope it comes back. I think is is an important piece.
Cover shot: Lulu Premiere 16.06.2018 // Rebecca Nelsen (Lulu), Patrick Vogel (the artist) © Tom Schulze