The Staging of Lulu
Berg’s Intentions

One of the subjects of the opera Lulu is the creation of that very opera. The composer is present in the forms of the Animal Tamer and of Alwa. In Act II, the latter is shown giving thought to writing an opera about the events that surround him, and is later chided for the "disagreeable" nature of the opera, which is at that point presumably complete. Lulu also gives us the opportunity to look in on the work of the director and the producer of the opera.

While the composer attends to the musical and dramatic plan of the opera, the director is responsible for the practicalities of staging. This often involves the assignment of more than one role to a performer, as doing so will save time and money. In Lulu, Berg undertakes this task himself, defining six multiple roles:

High Bass:            1) The Medical Specialist, the Professor, and the Banker
Lyric Tenor:         2) The Painter and the African
Heroic Baritone:    3) Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper
Contralto:             4) The Wardrobe Mistress, the Groom and the Schoolboy
Buffo Tenor:        5) The Prince, the Manservant, and the Marquis
Heroic Bass:         6) The Animal Tamer and the Acrobat

In the first three cases, each pair (ignoring the Banker) has a special significance in the drama and music of the opera (see Libretto); the singer of each pair appears as the first of the two roles in the Part I of the opera, returning in Part II as the doppelgänger of the first. Berg makes this clear via the music that accompanies them on stage: "each of the three entrances in the final scene reintroduces extended musical episodes originally associated with one of Lulu's three victims" (Perle 1985:61).

The fifth grouping, that of the Prince, the Manservant, and the Marquis, supposedly represents "the three forms of slavery": through marriage, servitude, and the brothel, respectively. This connection is not a dramatic one, as was the case in the first three groupings, but an incidental relationship arbitrarily pointed out by the composer. Berg has the Marquis' Series appear once in each of the Prince's two solo passages in the opera. The other groupings, in contrast, have no meaning in the opera; they are meaningful only to those in charge of putting on the opera. Even here, though, Berg has created musical relationships. So in Lulu we find that the creation of the opera is represented by Alwa and the Animal Tamer, and the performance of the opera is shown in the music being performed.

In Lulu, every crucial movement or action that occurs on the stage is meticulously notated in the score. Each actor’s stage directions are given above the staff showing his or her vocal line and text. Berg has synchronized every action with a musical event, and that synchronicity is shown by an arrow in the score pointing vertically from the words describing the action towards the instrument(s) playing the musical event. In performance, these markings must be obeyed; otherwise, the music of Lulu, which is an essential part of the drama, becomes a meaningless accompaniment.

The score of Lulu also contains explicit directions for the visual setting of each scene. The effect of these settings is to show the changes in Lulu’s fortunes as the opera progresses. The settings are also closely related to the music; this is made particularly clear in the final scene of the opera, which takes place in an attic in London. The music at this point describes the rain on the roof and the drone of an organ grinder on the street below. In the preceding scene, twelve of the opera’s characters are found in a gaming room in Paris. Berg constantly describes the actions of these characters, and their start points and durations are indicated. The stage designer of an opera company preparing to stage Lulu must pay close attention to the diagram of the structure of the gaming room provided by Berg. If the structure is altered, the timings of the movements of the actors will not correspond to those demanded by the score.

Performance Tradition

Between 1925 and 1933, Alban Berg’s first opera, Wozzeck, had made an illustrious campaign through the opera houses of Europe. For the majority of this period, Berg found it necessary to assist in the preparation of new productions of the opera, even if this meant keeping him away from work on Lulu. “He continued to participate actively in new productions of the opera even after assuring Schoenberg, in the spring of 1930, that he was at last convinced that the work “would go” without him” (Perle 1985:237). This can be accounted for, in part, by the extremely detailed and precise expectations Berg had for the performance of his works. A statement made by Schoenberg in 1931 provides a further explanation. In this statement, Schoenberg complains of stage producers “who look at a work only in order to see how to make it into something quite different” (quoted in Perle 1985:267). Berg, like any artist who cares greatly about his or her work, must have been quite wary of these people, whose first principle is the destruction of that which they are entrusted with.

Berg died at the end of 1935, before he could complete his work on Act III of Lulu. Even if he had lived into the 1940s he could not have supervised productions of Lulu in his homeland, due to the Nazi’s suppression of “degenerate” art. We can be sure that, had it been possible, Berg would have lavished the same attention on productions of Lulu as he had on those of Wozzeck.

Lulu received its world premier in Zurich on 2 June, 1937. In that production, only the first two acts of the opera were performed. In place of the third act “those fragments of Act III that Berg had incorporated in the Lulu Suite were presented, as ‘background music’ to a mainly pantomimed reconstruction of the final episode of the play, the murder of Lulu and the Countess by Jack the Ripper” (Perle 1985:266). Though it destroyed Berg’s entire dramatic and musical structure, this representation was the only one possible at the time. It was meant to be a temporary solution to what was expected to be a temporary problem: the incompletion of the orchestration of Act III.

As described in Orchestration, this problem persisted until 1976, so the precedent set in Zurich regarding Act III was followed for 42 years. Other, inexcusable, precedents were set in Zurich. Berg’s multiple roles were not followed, not even that of Dr. Schön and Jack the Ripper; thus, one of the key building blocks of the opera was lost. The Acrobat had his name, Rodrigo, restored to him, as did the other secondary characters in the drama, though Berg had eliminated them in his version of Wedekind’s Lulu plays. Alwa was identified as “a writer” as in Wedekind, rather than as “a composer” as in Berg’s opera. Until 1979, all but one performance – that of the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1977 -  repeated these “egregious misrepresentations” of Lulu (Perle 1985:267). Some productions, such as Hamburg production of 1957, went much further. In Hamburg, the settings and even the dialogue were revised in a bizarre and senseless manner (ibid.,266-7).

The Three-Act Lulu had the misfortune of being premiered in a post-modern age rather than an age of revival. Had 1979 been a year in which the misunderstood and obscured masterpieces of art were restored and presented anew before the public, it might today have been possible to see Berg’s second and greatest opera. Since our time is about “deconstructing” everything artists have created, however, a work such as Berg’s, a towering structure of infinite and lavish detail, must be ripped apart.

The Paris Opera gave the first ever performance of the complete Lulu on 24 February, 1979. The opera was “heard, not seen. What was seen on the stage of the Paris Opera was a vulgar and contemptible tragedy that converted the music of all three acts in relation to what was transpiring on the stage, into some sort of general background music at best and an utter irrelevancy much of the time” (ibid., 291). Every aspect of the setting was altered, but no corresponding changes were made to the music.

The premier of the 3 Act Lulu set an unfortunate precedent for later performances, which played paddle-ball with Berg's specifications and generally demonstrated the unwillingness and/or inability of the directors of those performances to understand the opera. One of the few exeptions to this was the 1986 production by the Scottish Opera.

Another disturbing trend is the inclinations of some directors towards the incomplete version of Lulu. Two-act performances of Lulu were tolerable before the opera was completed by Cerha, but only because no alternative to this practice was available. Such performances were enjoyable and somewhat useful for those interested in the opera, but realized much less than two-thirds of Berg's intentions. Now that the complete opera has been published and performed time and time again, there is no excuse for regressing to the two-act version.