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Opera Abbreviated: Lulu

The Metropolitan's Opera's new production of Lulu, by Alban Berg will be shown live from New York in movie theaters world-wide, as part of the Met's Live in HD Series, on Saturday, November 21 at 12.30 p.m. Locally, Lulu may be seen at AMC Lenox, Crosswoods Theaters, or Polaris.

It's fair to say that in opera, there is Lulu and there is everything else.

Not even works created in the early twentieth century owing to Schoenberg's twelve-tone theories, not even the most decadent plots coming out of the Weimar republic, capture the moral confusion of Lulu.

Alban Berg (1885-1935) wrote his own libretto for the opera left incomplete at his death.

The sources are two novels by Frank Wedekind (1864-1918) Earth Spirit and Pandora's Box.  As important as Berg and the reading public found these two erotic novels by Benjamin Franklin Wedekind, I'll bet it was the 1929 film directed by G.W. Pasbt,  Pandora's Box, and the stunning performance of Louise Brooks that crystallized Lulu in Alban Berg's mind.

The presence of the Jack the Ripper in Lulu's history anchors the story to the years leading up to the grisly murders in London's Whitechapel neighborhood in 1888. 

We meet Lulu as she is being painted as Pierrot. Her first husband rushes in and drops dead in seeing his young wife in the arms of the painter. The painter becomes her next husband, and he is driven to suicide. The young composer Alwa Schon despairs over  his own father's long standing fascination for Lulu. Dr. Schon's marriage to a respectable young woman is destroyed by Lulu, who herself dictates the letter breaking off the engagement. Lulu dangles herself before a wealthy lesbian countess, and finally, reduced to prostitution, finds herself in London, done in by Jack the Ripper.

So she's a whore, right? She's totally amoral, yes?  She is a woman without any redeeming qualities.  Maybe. But Lulu tells us clearly " I have never asked to be anything other than what I am. Nor has any man in my life been asked to look on me as other than what I am."

Berg's music uses the 12-tone system in classical forms. He lives in two musical worlds. One coming out of early 20th century Vienna, and the other that Mozart would have recognized. The music is astringent, often beautiful and fully reflects the unsettled moral worlds lived in by the characters.

Whether Lulu is a mirror on which men look at themselves, or as the mistress of her own fate, or a  blank canvas for men, what she is is a symbol of a world of vice ripening into the decadence and ennui that made world wars possible. Lulu is a person of no responsibility. Princes, acrobats, fathers, sons, women and old men are enthralled by her. She is not unpunished. Her final days as a prostitute and her murder by Jack the Ripper would have a moral value in a less  hedonistic era. By the time Lulu dies, she has been forgotten. That must be the worst punishment of all.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.