“Page to Opera Stage” looks at stories – real-life or fiction, old and new – that have inspired operas, and the ways these narratives have been edited and dramatized to fit a new medium. In this instalment, we follow “Salome” with another play adapted into an opera: Frank Wedekind’s duology “Earth Spirit” and “Pandora’s Box” and Alban Berg’s “Lulu.”
Austrian composer Alban Berg died suddenly on Christmas Eve 1935 – according to many sources, due to an insect bite that caused a septic boil, leading to blood poisoning. He was 50-years-old. Well-regarded in the Second Vienna School and a proponent of Arnold Schönberg’s twelve-tone methods, both his avant-garde and more traditional, Romantic compositions had gained great acclaim in his lifetime. By the time of his death, he had been facing almost three years of Nazi bans for his “degenerate” works and association with the Jewish Schönberg.
Most importantly for this exploration, he was not quite done with his longest, most ambitious opera.
“Lulu” is a combination of two Frank Wedekind plays written in the 1890s: “Earth Spirit” (“Erdgeist”) and “Pandora’s Box” (“Die Büchse der Pandora”). Both center around Lulu, the enigmatic seducer and victim who gives Berg’s opera her name. Frank Wedekind’s initial vision was a sprawling, five-act exploration of sex and amorality entitled “Lulu: A Monster Tragedy.” In this sense, Berg’s combination of “Earth Spirit” and “Pandora’s Box” into one epic work is a return to cohesion, letting Dr. Schön’s death be the turning point in Lulu’s life that flows immediately and cohesively into the next dramatic, disastrous chapter. Similarly, G. W. Pabst’s seminal silent film adaptation, titled solely “Pandora’s Box,” works elements of both plays’ narratives into a larger piece – if one far less textually and thematically faithful than the opera is.
As Wedekind’s dialogue was written to be spoken, Berg uses the original text quite faithfully in his libretto, working it into his own continuous, conversational music. Some sections are abbreviated and character actions condensed for clarity (one notable example is the exact proceedings of Alwa’s death), but the words tell the same story, in almost the same way. Even the framing device – introducing Lulu as the most dangerous animal in a metaphorical circus – is retained.
While “Earth Spirit” and “Pandora’s Box” have a certain symmetry when taken together, hingeing on Lulu’s murder of her then-husband Dr. Schön, it becomes all the more pronounced when the stories are melded in “Lulu” and propelled forward by Berg’s rigorously structured yet expressionist music. This symbolic mirroring of Lulu’s climb through society and rapid, disastrous fall is shown in the figures onstage and the music in the pit. The same three men are double-cast in the libretto to play both her three middle-class husbands, who all die and her three customers during her squalid life of prostitution in London. The music of the interlude falling where the two plays break – Lulu’s murder trial – is palindromic, reading the same forward and backwards.
Of course, on the page nuance of delivery and performance choices are left up to the imagination of the reader. With his music, Berg adds his own additional interpretations to Wedekind’s work – a work that has itself been seen as misogynistic, heralding women’s liberation, a scathing critique of bourgeoise society, and spectacle of degradation. Contradictions and multitudes are still contained in the opera’s score, but an overarching romanticism sits central to the opera.
Berg softens some of the cruelest, most cutting character assessments and Wedekind’s satire of late 19th-century decadence, notably in the characterizations of Lulu – the lost soul at the piece’s center – and of Alwa and Countess Geschwitz, the two adoring companions with Lulu to their bitter ends. Here, they are tragic in their pathetic devotion, finding sympathy in the lush orchestration missing in the words alone.
The characterization of Lulu is most cleverly and economically conveyed in Berg’s reinvention. In Wedekind’s original, Lulu is a well-defined shapeshifter – down to her name. She is referred to in the dramatis personae as Lulu, but she responds to how her current lover calls her.
SCHWARZ (THE PAINTER): Who?
SCHÖN: Who? Your wife.
SCHÖN: I called her Mignon.
SCHWARZ: I thought her name was Nellie?
SCHÖN: Dr. Goll called her so.
SCHWARZ: I called her Eve—
SCHÖN: What her real name is I don’t know.
SCHWARZ: (Absently.) Perhaps she knows.
Only Schigold, Alwa, and Countess Geschwitz consistently refer to her as Lulu in Wedekind’s text, marking the longevity of their entanglement. Berg spends less time on the projection and obfuscation of his antiheroine’s name (though it is represented in the libretto), instead constantly signifying this transformation in the music. Lulu’s demanding soprano music puts her always quite literally above her stage counterparts – but her music is never sung in opposition to them. She soars through and around their melodic lines, distinguishing herself even as she morphs to suit her newest circumstances and lovers. Her name, or lack thereof, is an afterthought, not the central mystery.
The music of “Lulu” is notable for its intricate twelve-tone rows to distinguish characters almost as leitmotifs as well as its use of unorthodox instrumentation (it is the first opera to use a vibraphone, an instrument commonly associated with jazz, in its orchestra). Its third act is also notable, and controversial, for its posthumous completion. Berg left full orchestration for the first two acts and detailed sketches for the third when he died. Erwin Stein, another student of Schönberg’s, completed a vocal score. Berg’s widow, Helene, approached Schönberg himself to complete the score, but he turned down the task. The official reason was that the task was larger than anticipated, and the composer did not have time. Other sources claim that Schönberg’s hesitancy stems from antisemitic stereotypes of the banker in Act three. Whatever the reason, Anton Webern, Alexander Zemlinsky, and Stein were unable to provide the requested completion – and Helene Berg forbade anyone else from trying.
“Lulu” was first performed deliberately in its unfinished state. Its 1937 premiere at the Zürich Opera used Berg’s orchestra sketches over mimed action to complete the last two scenes and Lulu’s downfall. This practice continued for the next four decades. In 1976, however, Helene Berg passed away, opening the door for a reworking. This version, completed by Friedrich Cerha, premiered at the Opera Garnier in 1979 and is most often performed today.
Like the opera’s eponymous heroine, the opera’s many interpretations and dueling claims of authenticity continue.