Tuesday, May 11, 2010


Although ostensibly set in the late 1880s, in my mind, Alban Berg’s opera, “Lulu,” which I saw Saturday at the Metropolitan Opera, reflects, instead, the time when it was written: the 1920s and ‘30s in Austria and Germany. Its keyless, 12-tone, atonal music is compelling and conveys both the sexual and political freedom as well as the uncertainty, of the Weimar Republic, which was struggling with hyperinflation and widespread unemployment, leading often to poverty, misery and despair.
Lulu is representative of the period. An urchin abandoned on the street, she is taken in by Dr. Schön, a wealthy newspaper publisher, who raises her and eventually, as if by right, takes her as his mistress. Her beauty and allure soon bring her husbands, including Dr. Schön, and many lovers, even as she seems uninvolved with and unaffected by their passion. Also, Lulu and her circle, like so many during this giddy time, lived extravagantly, often speculating in risky stocks, hoping to keep their high life going. For example, during the first scene of the third act, set appropriately in a casino, many present have invested everything in a railroad stock. Just before it collapses, an investor, asking if it is safe, is told that, “We bankers know our business, dear.” This elicited a knowing laugh from the nearly full house.
Like the stock, Lulu’s life collapses when she escapes to London to evade a blackmailing pimp at the casino who threatens to tell the police about Lulu’s murder of Dr. Schön. With no money, she becomes a common whore and is herself murdered by Jack the Ripper, mourned only by her faithful lesbian admirer, Countess Geschwitz.
Lulu’s unhappy, wasted life reminds me of the paintings of rich women and the wretched street prostitutes of Germany painted by the great Expressionist, Otto Dix. The Neue Galerie in New York has mounted the first major retrospective of his work in North America. You can see these powerful paintings through August 30th, but you have only two more chances to see “Lulu”: Wednesday, the 12th at 8 PM and Saturday, the 15th, at 12:30 PM. The principal singers, Marlis Petersen as Lulu, James Morris as Dr. Schön, and Anne Sofie von Otter as the Countess Geschwitz are all superb, conveying the power and fascination of Lulu as she rises and falls. I urge you to see this wonderful work. You will never forget “Lulu.”
And to get a compelling picture of Wiemar’s sexual demimonde and the conditions that brought Hitler to power, read “A Trace of Smoke” by Rebecca Cantrell. In it, a female reporter in 1931 Berlin learns that her transvestite brother has been murdered, and she sets out to find out who did it. As she searches, we get a vivid picture of the desperation and corruption that bred Nazism. It will keep you reading to learn what happens.

1 comment:

Franklyn said...

It is interesting that during the 20's and early 30's, along with social upheaval and decadence was the blossoming of great creative effort. Compare it to politically and social tranquil times during which relatively little was accomplished. Why does this so often happen?