1. Alban Berg’s opera “Lulu” tells a bleak tale of an alluring waif turned seductress whose life spirals downward to a tragic ending.
2. “Lulu” is based on two German Expressionist plays by Frank Wedekind. “Earth Spirit” and “Pandora’s Box” explored the life of a seemingly amoral street dancer turned courtesan. Known as “The Lulu Plays,” the two works from 1895 and 1904 portrayed a temptress who seduced lovers and enticed husbands into twisted liaisons of their choosing. All had gruesome endings – suicide or murder.
It’s an ancient trope, the wicked femme fatale – from Jezebel to Salome. At the end of the 19th century, it got a big boost thanks to Freud, Nietzsche and other intellectuals, not to mention new, more independent women who emerged from the industrial revolution to change the script of subservience.
Reportedly, Wedekind’s Lulu was based on Lou Salome, a vivacious Russian-born confidant of Freud, Nietzsche and the poet Rainer-Maria Rilke. She disdained convention, particularly sexual taboos. Wedekind met her in Paris, became enraptured and initiated an attack on the strictures of bourgeois society with a character based on Salome’s freewheeling personality.
3. The “Lulu” plays followed Wedekind’s earlier scandal, “Spring Awakening.” If you saw the recent Fort Lewis College production of the rock musical based on the 1891 tragedy about adolescent anxiety, you might think Durango is in the middle of a German Expressionist revival. There’s something about Wedekind’s restless, angry fin de siècle works that resonate in our culture today.
4. In Wedekind’s plays, the 1929 film based on them, and Berg’s opera, Lulu’s story grinds down to despair and death. In the opera’s Act I, Lulu is a beautiful, vibrant and reckless young woman. In Act II, she’s a predator, manipulating men to do her will. In Act III, she’s desperate and defeated, a prostitute bringing in the wrong clients.
5. Berg’s atonal style met the story demands with a fury. His music overall may be angular and intense but also lyrical to the point of painful beauty. A certain age-of-anxiety underlies the entire score. Marking it as distinctly a mid-20th century work, Lulu’s sensuous theme is expressed by a saxophone.
6. The new Met production has an exciting visual style that enhances Berg’s 12-tone music. The South African artist William Kentridge has created an unnerving, shifting platform for Berg’s tragedy. Jazzy, ever-changing black-and-white graphics pile up, flutter and appear to blow away through film projections and onstage manipulation.
7. The German soprano Marlis Petersen sings Lulu, a role that’s been hers for two decades. At the close of the Met’s production, she will retire the role, a big reason to see the opera on Saturday.
8. At the beginning, the male singers appear in one guise and another at the end. And director/designer Kentridge has invented two witness roles: a female double and a creepy valet. Their observer presence throughout intensifies Lulu’s descent.
9. “Lulu” is considered a modern operatic masterpiece, embodying the zeitgeist of a tumultuous period in European history. Berg, Freud, Nietzsche, and Wedekind, each in his own voice and medium, chronicled the discord. Now, Berg’s 1935 opera has been updated for our discordant time.
10. “Lulu” starts at 10:30 a.m. Saturday morning and runs four hours and 10 minutes.
[email protected] Judith Reynolds is a Durango writer, art historian and arts journalist.