Thoughts on Berg's Lulu

Thoughts on my little Lulu

Didn’t I just say Lulu isn’t easy to love? But I actually love her. Or do I?

I love the complexity of the whole thing. Berg’s opera, I mean. My relationship with Lulu is on stage, audio/visual, ergo totally platonic, to the extent that it’s even possible with her or with Lulu itself. I don’t have fantasies. Actually I don’t want her near me, near my wife or my family. But might I get to know her?

Lulu and its protagonist are projective tests right there in front of us for an evening. How we understand the abundant ambiguities of her character, her motives, her reactions are shaped as much by our models of how the world is (or how it should be) (or how it emphatically should not be) as it is by how Berg himself conceived her, and, of course, how the director conceives her and how the singing actress plays her on stage. Our needs get in the way too.

But can we love her? Would you love her? Ask yourself: how well do you tolerate serialism in music? To what degree do you need characters in opera to make sense? No, really. In general how well do you deal with ambiguity or non-sequiturs in a text…or on a date? A challenge, am I right? Are you under 35, single, alienated and lonely?

Marliss Petersen as Berg's Lulu at the Met, November 2015

Marliss Petersen as Berg's Lulu at the Met, November 2015

Thoughts here are about what we’re dealing with on stage, what Berg chose to create for us, not what he could have shown us. By his own reckoning, Berg trimmed his sources for Lulu, the two Wedekind plays, down to one fifth their original length into a workable libretto for an opera clocking just under three hours. Had he not, the confounding thing would rival the Ring in running time. Imagine that! Life is too short.

In the opera Lulu’s origins and upbringing are clouded in contradictions. Take Schigolch, the old man who wheezes into her new life with the Painter in Scene Two of Act I. Dr. Schön calls him her ‘father.’ But is he? Possibly. The Painter tags him as a beggar, but note that Lulu is not remotely surprised to see him, as if his visits have been routine in the past, like before she was hitched to the Painter. She almost seems to have expected him, he knows where she lives, although it’s possible this particular occasion is his first visit to her new digs. Note too that Schigolch calls her meine kleine Lulu, which pleases her, not Nelly, Eva, or Mignon, the names her other men use for her. He replies Hab ich dich jemals anders genannt? (Have I ever named you anything else?). There is history here.

But then in Act II, as Schigolch is trading pleasantries with the Acrobat and the Schoolboy, he says, matter of factly about Lulu "who hasn't wanted to marry her?" "Wait, she's not your child?" they ask. "No way," Schigolch replies, "she never had a father."

Okay, I'm confused. Pausing to think about it, it’s not so much that the others call her whatever they wish, it’s that they don’t seem to care, even when corrected, that she has had other possibly different identities with other persons. Are we saying to name someone is to exert control?

Or are we saying Lulu, who has no father, is also all names, the ‘everywoman,’ das ewige Weibliche who will Zieht uns hinan, scribed by Goethe (and praised to the skies by Gustav Mahler in the grand finale of his Symphony of a Thousand, soloists, chorus and orchestra intoning the text of Faust, Part Two)? Or should we think of her as Die Erdegeist, not an angel, but a low spirit of the Earth? It’s Franz Wedekind’s title for his play, which comprises approximately the first half of Berg’s libretto. She could be Venus, though somehow 'Flytrap' comes quickly to mind. She could be an incarnation of Lilith, the first and sometimes contrary wife of Adam, rib story be damned. But Lilith also sometimes could become a beast or a demon, like when she left the Garden of Eden and fornicated with someone...Sam somebody. Who cares at this point.

Yes, Schigolch needs money in Act I, but he had money once: he refers to better times in the past. We gather that he, regardless of who he really is, is never absent too long from her life. In Act II, Lulu tells Alwa that Schigolch is an old friend of Dr. Schön, that they were in the war together. But were they?

At the first curtain Lulu is and has been the mistress of the powerful newspaper man Dr. Ludwig Schön. But she is married to a rich old fossil called Herr Medizinalrat, soon to be extinct before the end of the scene. Though sex obviously enters into their long relationship, Schön has known Lulu since she was twelve: the little gamin in the streets selling flowers outside a café. She tried to steal his watch. Schön took her in. She fulfilled his every need after his wife died, perhaps even before, but it’s more than just for pleasure that Lulu feels bound to him. He has given her kindness and protection, if at the price of his soul. Watching, listening to her early in the opera, it seems that Lulu is rather like a stray cat taken in to one’s home, now here to stay. Indeed she calls herself an animal. Is this love?

But more recently, and here comes the big snag, Dr. Schön wishes to end their relationship, marry another, and return to a life a bit more normal, respectable, and public. He has tried in the past to free himself from her: not only has Schön brokered two advantageous marriages for Lulu, first to the Doctor, the above mentioned Medizinalrat, and then, after the former’s sudden death in Scene One, to the Painter. In addition, Schön has connived to have the latter’s paintings of her sold at a pretty price and has advanced her career as a dancer, with the not-so-hidden motive of attracting new suitors for her. He has made Lulu a self-supporting woman in many ways.

Still Lulu will not leave him. Unlike Nabokov’s Lolita, Lulu wants to stay with Humbert H. Schön. The stray cat hangs around. By the end of Act I, Lulu forces Schön to break his engagement to the society woman who is only a year younger than she. Lulu knows that au fond Schön is too weak to escape her. The music accompanying her protestation of their unbreakable relationship is indeed troubling.

But Alwa, Schön’s son, revolves in a similar orbit. In the Wedekind plays, Alwa is a playwright; in the opera he is a composer. We soon know who he is: when in Scene Three of Act I he wonders about the possibilities of making an opera about Lulu’s husbands, his thoughts are introduced by a quote from Berg’s Wozzeck. Alwa is Berg himself. In the Met’s new William Kentridge production, a sketch of Berg’s face is projected behind Alwa before he muses.

Why is it important to know that Alwa is Alban Berg’s on-stage persona? Well for one thing, Berg was allegedly thinking of his mistress, his soul mate in a passionate relationship crafted before and on-going all through the composition of Lulu. This passion fuels the only true love scene (such as it is) in the opera.

The links are interesting. Berg’s mistress was one Hanna Werfel Fuchs, sister to Franz Werfel, the writer who ultimately bedded, then later married Alma Schindler Mahler, whom he called a “sorceress.” Alma became his after the collapse of her affair with and marriage to the architect Walter Gropius and, more importantly, after the death of her first husband, the great Gustav Mahler, whom the entire Western musical world knows and loves.

For the record, a young Alma was pursued by Alexander Zemlinsky and even dallied with the artists Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka. They, like her proud, strong father, were artists of genius.

Anyway, Hanna Werfel was married to a Herbert Fuchs Robettin, a somebody who today is, to most of us, just a name.

Through Alma’s arrangements, Berg lodged with the Fuchs family in May of 1925 so that he could be in town to oversee the Prague premiere of his Three Fragments from [his only opera at this point] Wozzeck, conducted by the august and aforementioned Zemlinsky, who also taught music to and championed the works of Berg, Arnold Schoenberg and Anton von Webern, soon to be the giants of 20th century serialism.

For the record, digressing here, Zemlinsky wrote a number of quite interesting operas, especially Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) and Eine floritinische Tragödie (A Florintine Tragedy), both based on works by Oscar Wilde, both perversions of a hearth and home style love. He also authored respectable symphonies, song cycles, and chamber pieces.

Deeply taken with her, Berg wrote an epic musical love letter to Hanna: his 2nd string quartet, the Lyric Suite (premiered January, 1927). He used the notes (German notation) A, B (Alban Berg) and H, F (Hanna Fuchs) and their special numbers 10 and 23 as structural elements throughout the six movements, with a musical quote of the verse Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen (You are my one and only, my one and only) from the Third Movement of Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie (hence the title of Berg’s Suite) and a quote from the prelude of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in the final minutes. The Lyric Suite is one of Berg’s most frequently performed compositions. He dedicated the piece to Zemlinsky, but Berg, as a secret gift to Hanna, annotated all of the musical references in a special miniature score of the Lyric Suite in multicolored inks; the score was not revealed until after Hanna died in 1964.

A little aside on recording media: the back cover notes for my old Vox Stereo LP of Berg’s Lyric Suite (paired with Schonberg’s Verklärte Nacht, both elegantly recorded by the Ramor Quartet, 1963) is all about the music in the abstract. There are warnings to the buyer, but they don’t mention any subtext of the Suite addressing an immoral extramarital love affair, which, had ratings existed back then, would make it PG-13, but no, they warn that, among other things, “Your stylus should be frequently checked under a microscope; a worn out needle will ruin your entire collection; no stylus is permanent”…nor is your entire vinyl collection apparently. Neither is your mind or your body. But I've digressed again.

Alwa admits to total awe the first time he met Lulu, there, as his dear mother lay dying. He even insists, after his mother passes, that his father should marry Lulu or else fight a duel with him. Strong sentiments!

Alwa remembers when he and Lulu were youngsters together, like brother and sister, he says. How much did he know about her real place in the family? Significant that when Alwa later admits his adult love for her, he will call her Mignon.

But Lulu feels safe with him, adding that he is the only man who protects her without trying to destroy her.

By the first third of Act II, Alwa is becoming totally smitten with Lulu, as much as she is becoming selbst gesmitten with herself. Ja gewiss, she muses, ich bin ein Wunderkind (Yes certainly I am a wonderchild (in one translation, a 'miracle' in another, a 'prodigy' in yet another). To this she adds quickly Als ich mich im Spiegel sah, hätte ich ein Mann sein wollen…mein Mann (When I see myself in the mirror, I wish I were a man…my own husband). Lulu's butterfly of narcissism has broken free from its cocoon.

As Alwa begins his descent into the slavery of love he caresses her hand, her arm, saying Mignon, ich liebe dich, to which Lulu casually replies that she poisoned his mother.

Dr. Schön, now quite mad due to all the random visitors who stray in and out of his house, wants to end their relationship by forcing Lulu to shoot herself. But animals naturally are survivors: Lulu shoots him instead. Not once, five times! His dying father warns him ‘you’ll be next,’ but it doesn’t stop Alwa from taking the plunge.

So Lulu goes to prison. But she escapes through a clever but risky plan hatched by the Countess Geschwitz; Schigolch (here he is again) will bring her back to us.

Apropos to the ‘love scene’ in Lulu, Alwa (Berg) likens the movements of a chamber composition to Lulu’s anatomy (in Berg’s fantasy Hanna’s) as he explores her body: her ankles a grazioso, her knees a misterioso, and so on.

Lulu almost kills the mood by reminding Alwa that she shot his father to death, but she isn’t alone with mood killing one liners: Alwa matter of factly observes Wenn deine beiden grossen Kinderaugen nicht wären, müsste ich dich die abgefeimteste Dirne halten, die je einen Mann ins Verderben gestürzt (Were it not for your two big childlike eyes, I should say you were the most designing of whores who ever brought a man down to his doom). Thrust!

Parry! Lulu replies Wollte Gott, ich wäre das! (I wish to God I were that!).

Yet as their passions rise, Lulu chills the mood with Ist das noch der Diwan - auf dem sich - dein Vater - verblutet hat? (Is this not the divan on which your father bled?).

Why would she say that, given that Alwa is obviously so in love and aroused?

As I said in OperaMetro’s preview of the HD season, bottom of the page Metropolitan Opera ReviewsLulu is not exactly a date opera!

Lulu meets Jack the Ripper

Lulu meets Jack the Ripper

Bottom line, as she lays it out to us: she’s just an animal. At the opera's very beginning, according to the stage directions, she is carried in by the Animal Trainer's assistant August. The trainer calls her a snake.

But more than this, she says, in her aria titled the Lied von Lulu, Ich habe nie in der Welt etwas anderes scheinen wollen, als wofur man mich genommen hat; und man hat mich nie in der Welt für etwas anderes genommen, als was ich bin. (essentially “I’ve never in the world pretended to be anything I am not; no one has ever taken me for anything but what I am.”)

Popeye, somewhat less complex than Lulu, says this too: “I yam what I yam, and that’s all that I yam.”

And therein begins her decline. Alwa cannot support her. Lulu is still evading the police as an escaped murderess, constantly threatened with exposure. Alwa, Schigolch, and the Countess Geschwitz stick with her, but many are wiped out by a stock market crash. Cash is scarce.

In the end, in the slums of London, she is reduced to prostitution to pay the rent. Her abasement is hastened by encounters with three men of the night, counterparts to the three destroyed in her rise to the 'top.' Trying to protect her, Alwa is killed by the African Prince; Jack the Ripper, Dr. Schön’s darker persona, finally ends her Lulu's life; he also stabs Geschwitz, as if an afterthought. Schigolch, meanwhile, is downstairs in the pub.

So are we saying that Lulu can thrive only as long as Dr. Schön is alive? That she and those left behind with her were relatively powerless to take care of her? Hardly a Wunderkind. Can the Eternal Feminine be so helpless and dependent? Or that she doesn't fit in a male dominated society. Hmm. Or is it the case that the Eternal Feminine is eternally misunderstood and therefore destroyed by the eternal masculine. If you think of Lulu's arc in the opera, she becomes practically mythic, no parents, miracle, prodigy, narcissistic, but only to the extent that Alwa can love her. But then she takes the fatal misstep of shooting his father; the laws of civilization take her down. What's an archetype to do? 

Preceding Lulu there were a spate of irresistible bad girls on stage, perhaps more lovable, but some not. Following Violetta, we have Manon Lescaut, sweet but still bad news for Des Grieux; Mimi and Musetta seem to have no problem getting around without their men; Carmen is a hardened professional; Tigrana, in Puccini’s Edgar, torments and kills.

Interesting aside: to capture a more aggressive and sexual woman, as he had done in Edgar, Giacomo Puccini was urged by his publisher Ricordi to compose an opera based on La Femme et le Pantin (The Woman and the Puppet), a novel by the turn of the century French author Pierre Louÿs. It’s the tale of Conchita Perez, who arouses her man's desires to an aching peak but then torments him by refusing to allow him near her. (I won’t tell you how it ends.) Puccini waxed and waned, but he later dropped it, observing “there are no nice people in this opera.” He called her the “Spanish Slut.” Riccardo Zandonai, of Francesca da Rimini fame, later composed Conchita; it achieved a decent level of success.

When you stop to think of it, there are no nice people in Berg’s Lulu either. Maybe that’s why it’s hard to love it.

Still there were a lot of strange goings-on in those years, still speaking operatically. I mentioned Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg above, but don’t forget Strauss’s Salome (also based on Oscar Wilde). Korngold’s Violanta is hot, Schreker’s Grette in Der ferne Klang and Carlotta in Die Gezeichneten are corrupted sexually by heartless men, Brecht/Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper and Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny have their share of tarts. The turn of the century is also the time of Arthur Schnitzler’s plays and his Traumnovelle (Dream Story), the source of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). And then there is Freud.

Translations are cobbled from various libretti.

Met photos of Lulu are by Ken Howard, new production, 2015.

Karen Monson, in her 1970 biography of Alban Berg, suggests that Klimt's Judith I is nearer to the essence of Berg's Lulu. The image posted here is one of six Klimt coasters from Vienna.

Just rambling. Enjoy Lulu in HD.