Blood-soaked and beautiful, Alban Berg’s Lulu may rank among the greatest and most disturbing operas of the 20th century. This fall’s new production of Lulu at the New York Metropolitan Opera—its first reprisal of the work in its entirety since the 1980 premiere—gives us an extraordinary chance to hear and see this challenging work of midcentury modernism in all its terrifying glory, with the gifted soprano Marlis Petersen in the title role, and set designs by the South African artist William Kentridge, whose haunted drawings and films distinguish him as one of the most original artists of our time. In a throwaway age of digitalized superheroes and corporate pop, it’s hard to imagine circumstances that better reveal the explosive powers still manifest in modern art.

Theodor Adorno, the Frankfurt School philosopher who studied composition with Berg in the 1920s, gave the opera a backhanded compliment when he described it as “one of those works that reveals the extent of its quality the longer and more deeply one immerses oneself in it.” Lulu the opera is like the heroine herself—enigmatic, alluring, and troubled by the past. It was one of Berg’s final works; he interrupted its composition to write the lush and neo-Romantic Violin Concerto, a piece that has endured across the decades as the most approachable work in his oeuvre. The opera was left unfinished when Berg died in 1935; the short score was done, but the orchestration was complete for only the first 268 bars of the harrowing third act. Even for the Zurich premiere in 1937, it remained in this imperfect state, and due to a legal dispute with his widow, for many years audiences heard just the first and second acts, leaving them to puzzle over fragmentary bits from the work’s conclusion that were performed piecemeal on the stage. James Levine conducted the opera in its incomplete form at the Met back in 1977. The fully finished version, with the third act orchestrated by the Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha, premiered in Paris only in 1979, and the Met reprised the full version a year later.

The opera’s style presents formidable challenges for the ears. Lulu stands among the very first 12-tone or “dodecaphonic” operas of the 20th century, composed according to the principles introduced in the early ’20s by Arnold Schoenberg, Berg’s teacher and the titular head of the so-called Second Vienna School. (Preceding Lulu by several years were two 12-tone operas that Schoenberg himself had composed: the comedic Von heute auf morgen in 1929, and the biblically themed Moses und Aron in 1932.) Even today, the early monuments of 12-tone composition can split concert-hall audiences into warring camps, pitting a smaller faction of hard-core modernists against the reluctant many who, try as they will, just can’t warm to the sounds of the Viennese avant-garde. Just this side of the divide are the Expressionist works from Schoenberg’s earlier period of “free” atonality, such the Second String Quartet (1908), in which each movement creeps closer to the edge of complete atonality until a final breakthrough in the last movement, as announced by a soprano singing the line from a Stefan George poem: “I feel the air of another planet.” Berg’s compositions can likewise be divided into early and late; it remains a commonplace view that Wozzeck, the first of his two operas, is the more accessible and thematically unified work.

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Much of the controversy that still afflicts Lulu can be blamed on the plot itself. From the very beginning, its cynical views on sexuality and bourgeois hypocrisy earned the opera a frosty reception from conservatives, who reviled Berg for his modernist idiom and his affiliation with Schoenberg. Although Berg was neither Jewish nor a communist, the Nazis attacked him as a “cultural Bolshevik” and, in their hatemongering art shows of the late 1930s, condemned his works as specimens of “degenerate music.” Even the musicologist Willi Reich, who wrote the first major biography of Berg, disparaged the plot of Lulu as “dime-novelistic” and “crass.”

Berg borrowed both that plot and much of the dialogue from Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box, the first two plays of the so-called “Lulu trilogy” by the late-19th-century playwright Benjamin Franklin Wedekind. A radical democrat whose German parents had fled Europe after the failure of the 1848 revolution, Wedekind was born shortly after his family returned to Germany, though they quit their homeland once again when Bismarck came to the helm of the united Reich in 1871. He grew up in Switzerland, later moved to Munich, and briefly worked in Zurich, where the young novelist befriended socialist writers like the celebrated German playwright Gerhart Hauptmann, who depicted the laboring poor in a naturalistic style. (Hauptmann’s The Weavers, the best-known work of German naturalism, commemorates an uprising of Silesian workers in the 1840s.) But Wedekind, who had more of an anarchistic temperament, soon broke with the German naturalists and plunged into the even more forbidden terrain of human sexuality. His first major success, Spring Awakening, scandalized fin-de-siècle audiences with its candid explorations of homosexuality and adolescent sexual desire. Like his contemporary Sigmund Freud, Wedekind was a critic of the repressive moralism of the age. But his rebellious ways and seeming disregard for all rules of balance and propriety alienated the cool-minded psychoanalyst, who praised the playwright for his “deep understanding of sexuality” but said he did not consider Spring Awakening to be a “great work of art.”

Wedekind wrote the first two Lulu plays in 1895 and 1905 and later staged them under a single title, Lulu: A Tragedy in Five Acts. (Death and the Devil, the third play in the trilogy, is more of an appendage, and Berg omits it from his opera.) Lulu is a bewildering tale that has all the marks of German Expressionism: overwrought emotion, violent lurches in narrative, and characters who are hastily sketched social types lacking in three-dimensional reality. The tragedy traces Lulu’s rise and fall as she navigates the sea of men who compete for her affections. One after another, they succumb to her uncanny charms as she ascends the rungs of society to bourgeois respectability. In the first act, she is introduced as the wife of the Physician and a mistress to Dr. Schoen, a wealthy newspaperman who wishes to keep their affair a secret. The Painter, who has been hired to do Lulu’s portrait, tries to seduce her. At the very moment of this attempt, the Physician bursts into the room. Shocked by what he sees, he falls dead from a heart attack. Lulu, now flush with wealth, marries the Painter. Later, Dr. Schoen decides to marry a young woman from polite society and needs to cast Lulu aside. He tells the Painter of her unseemly past, and the latter is so annihilated by the truth that he takes his own life. But Dr. Schoen realizes that he can’t tear himself away from Lulu after all, so he breaks off his engagement and marries her. The second act finds Lulu as a woman of high society, basking in her riches and attracting admirers both young and old, including the lesbian Countess Geschwitz and Alwa, Dr. Schoen’s own son. Outraged, Dr. Schoen gives Lulu a revolver and insists that she kill herself. But Lulu kills Dr. Schoen instead, then pleads with Alwa to save her from the police.

In Berg’s opera, the action onstage now comes to a pause. An orchestral interlude accompanies a filmed sequence that tells us of Lulu’s subsequent troubles: She is arrested, tried for murder, and sent to prison. During her confinement, she is stricken with cholera and must be taken to a hospital. The Countess, deeply in love, devises a plan to contract cholera as well so that she can change places with Lulu and aid in her escape. Alwa then declares his love for her, and Lulu absconds with him to Paris. The third act shows us Lulu’s downfall: Threatened with blackmail, she barely evades a second arrest and ends up destitute in a shabby London apartment with Alwa, who is stricken with syphilis. Reduced to prostitution, Lulu is nonetheless still being courted by the Countess and others. Lulu lures a succession of men to the flat, including an African prince who murders Alwa in a struggle. While the Countess gazes at Lulu’s portrait, Lulu brings home a third client: Jack the Ripper. The Countess hears Lulu’s screams and runs to her defense, but Jack has already killed Lulu, and he stabs the Countess too. As the play comes to an end, Jack washes his hands. The Countess, alone on the stage, sings her Liebestod.

A lurid atmosphere of fin-de-siècle misogyny pervades the action from beginning to end. In a brief prologue that precedes the first act, a character called the Animal Trainer (sporting, of course, a whip and a loaded revolver) introduces Lulu as a “snake” who was “created to stir up disaster, to lure, seduce, and poison.” In its very extremity, however, Wedekind’s play doesn’t so much confirm as dismantle the codes of the Pandora myth. The effect, more satirical than sincere, assumes a heightened meaning in Berg’s opera: The unexpected cameo by the penny-­dreadful Jack the Ripper in the concluding scene turns Lulu into a sly commentary on the narrative conventions of 19th-century opera that routinely condemn their heroines to violent deaths. After all, Lulu herself is not the source of sin, but only the occasion for the men who surround her to reveal their own depravity. Dr. Schoen is pleased to keep her as his mistress until the moment that he needs to establish his reputation in polite society. Unlike Lulu, he uses love as an instrument for the most cynical ends: to advance his career. Only Lulu is honest in her intentions. Granted, the play is thick with bloodshed and betrayal, but if there is a higher principle that manages to survive all of this inhumanity, it can be heard in Lulu’s forthright claim: “I can’t love by command.”

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In May 1905, the great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus produced a version of Pandora’s Box in a small theater in Vienna; Lulu was played by Tilley Newes, Wede­kind’s future wife. In a short lecture preceding its performance, Kraus characterized the play as a study in male egotism: “A man may dream about having a free female companion,” he declared, “but reality will force her to belong to him as wife or mistress, because his need for social respectability will always take precedence over his dreams.” Even the man who longs for a companion of unrestrained sexuality wishes to restrain it for himself alone. This, Kraus concluded, is the key to all love tragedies: “the man’s desire to be chosen without allowing the woman the right to choose.” Each of the men in the play tries to turn Lulu into his private fantasy, and each imposes on her a different name: Lulu, Nelly, Eve, Mignon. In the midst of this dissemblance, Lulu remains who she is: a heroine who pursues her desires without the adornments of social convention and sentimentality. Lulu, said Kraus, is “sex personified,” but she is also a “Nachtwandlerin der Liebe,” a somnambulist in the field of love.

Sitting in the audience that night in the Viennese theater was the young Alban Berg. By the time he began writing his operatic version of Lulu in the late 1920s, Wedekind’s play was already widely known and frequently performed by the best actors of the day. In 1929, Louise Brooks starred in a silent-film version of Pandora’s Box directed by G.W. Pabst. For the opera, Berg streamlined the plot and simplified the dialogue to render it more suitable to song, but he did little to modify the play’s basic architecture. Alwa became a composer, a change that suggests Berg’s identification with the character (“Alwa” echoes “Alban”). But before his labors were done, Berg died—absurdly, from an infection caused by an insect bite. He was only 50 years old. His widow Helene had initially hoped to secure Schoenberg’s aid in completing the orchestration, but the composer declined. Furnishing the official explanation that he felt too burdened by other tasks, Schoenberg privately confessed to his student Erwin Stein that he felt especially troubled by passages in the libretto’s third act, in which Berg had indicated that a banker’s musical lines should descend into “jüdeln” and “mauschelnd” (well-known terms in the anti-Semitic arsenal that suggested stereotypically Jewish vocal mannerisms and “jargon”). As Schoenberg observed, Berg’s music renders the banker’s lines as “screeching.” With his refusal, the offer of orchestrating the opera fell to Schoenberg’s students: first to Anton Webern and then to Alexander Zemlinsky, though neither followed through. Still incomplete, Lulu premiered at the Stadttheater in Zurich on June 2, 1937. Present in the audience that evening was the novelist Thomas Mann, who confided in his diary that it had been a “superlative production” of a “difficult work.”

If Lulu is indeed a challenging piece, it is chiefly because it exemplifies the technical and aesthetic principles of serial composition. Unlike a work that conforms to conventional tonality, a serial or 12-tone composition eschews any idea of a home key. Consider a major scale in the key of B-flat: Starting on B-flat, one moves upward by a specific sequence of half and whole steps until one comes to rest on the B-flat an octave above. The eight notes of this ladder are the diatonic pitches that define the home key. But Western music in the modern era can be described as a great experiment in testing the limits of this ideal, introducing ever more tones and complex harmonies that lay beyond the diatonic scale until, around the time of Wagner, the very distinction between consonance and dissonance began to break down, opening up a wilderness of chromaticism that made full use of all tonal possibilities beyond the constraints of classical tonality. By the early 20th century, this testing of tonal conventions had reached its limit, and Schoenberg believed that composition could proceed no further without a bold revolution in musical grammar. Borrowing a phrase from an earlier musicologist, he called for “the emancipation of the dissonance.”

Some of Schoenberg’s earlier works (such as the expressionistic masterpiece Pierrot Lunaire, written just before World War I) exhibit a style of “free” atonality that sits right at the precipice of this revolution. The same is true for early and lyrical works by Berg, such as the Three Orchestral Pieces completed in 1915. By the early ’20s, however, Schoenberg had made a genuine breakthrough, introducing the basic principles of 12-tone composition. These principles treat all 12 notes of the chromatic scale as possessing equal value and forbid any regression back to conventional tonality. To ensure this equality, the dodecaphonic composer works with a basic “row,” a specific series of the 12 notes of the chromatic scale, each of which must be sounded before any note can be repeated. The tone row can then be manipulated through simple techniques like inversion (going up, for example, where the shift of intervals in the original row goes down) and retrograde, or “crab” (where the row is played backward). As Schoenberg never tired of explaining, 12-tone composition is hardly a matter of mere technical manipulation. The row and the rules for its transformation simply serve as the groundwork for the composer’s artistry, just as a key and the rules of conventional tonality were the groundwork for Beethoven.

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In Lulu, Berg relaxed these compositional principles in a host of ways, affording himself greater latitude for aesthetic expression. He used not just one tone row but several, a strategy that distinguishes the opera from the often-rigid quality of Schoenberg’s own dodecaphonic works. This diversity of material also creates a harmonic texture in the opera that makes room for elements of traditional tonality as well. As the composer George Perle once observed, the opera’s tonal character is especially noticeable in the way Berg handles the outer voices: The bass line, for instance, demonstrates a “linearity” and “directed motion” that recalls the works of Schoenberg’s free atonal period. Even those unschooled in musicology can hear the difference. Of the three original members of the Second Viennese School (Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg), it is Berg whose 12-tone compositions most clearly sustain the bond to the Romantic tradition; Webern’s works can sound austere by comparison. Berg’s Violin Concerto, though written at the same time as Lulu, breaks even more decisively with the vocabulary of 12-tone composition, exploring an idiom of anguished tonality that pays homage to Mahler.

Berg was a man fascinated by symmetry, and his opera is littered with palindromes and numerological symbolism. (Lulu’s name is an infantile repetition of syllables; one of her alternate monikers, Eve, is a true palindrome.) The film interlude at the opera’s center, depicting her arrest, imprisonment, and her path to escape, has a palindromic form: In the middle of bar 687, when Lulu languishes in jail, the music actually starts to run backward, making her imprisonment the dramatic and formal pivot of the entire opera. More striking still, Berg’s instructions require that some performers double up in their roles. The performers who play Lulu’s three husbands early on return as her three clients once she is reduced to prostitution at the opera’s end. The score expressly indicates that the same performer should play both Dr. Schoen and Jack the Ripper, highlighting the violence that lurks within patriarchal marriage. Only Countess Geschwitz is what she appears to be: a woman in love.

The troubles that have afflicted productions of Lulu ever since its 1937 Zurich premiere have been due in part to the composer’s widow. After her initial attempts to secure assistance in completing the orchestration, Helene Berg grew strangely resistant to any further efforts. It was George Perle who unlocked the mystery: In 1977, he discovered an annotated score of Berg’s “Lyric Suite” written in the composer’s own hand, whereby Berg dedicated the work to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin (the wife of a Prague industrialist and the sister of Austrian novelist Franz Werfel). In his own script, Berg had written: “for whom and only for whom—in spite of the official dedication…­every note of this work was written.” The score was annotated in scrupulous detail with color-coded inks to reveal the entire work’s hidden meaning. Berg had even combined his own initials with Hanna’s to form a basic “cell,” or musical figure that serves as compositional raw material for the score. And he identified two numbers, 10 and 23 (“our numbers”), as keys to the “Lyric Suite,” which he encoded into the score with scrupulous skill—determining, for example, how many bars are in each movement. The secret meaning of the “Lyric Suite” also made its way into Lulu, where Berg made special use of the two notes ‘H’ (that is, b) and ‘F’ (for ‘Hanna Fuchs). This is especially true in the opera’s final act, when Countess Geschwitz, in her last moments of life, cries out: “Ich bin dir nah! Bleibe dir nah, in Ewigkeit,” (“I remain close to you; and shall remain so in eternity”); this is truly a statement of love, and, presumably, Berg’s message to Hanna. Helene Berg, who knew of her husband’s love for Fuchs-Robettin, went to great lengths to obstruct the completion of the opera. She died in 1976, and the fully orchestrated version premiered in Paris three years later, conducted by Pierre Boulez.

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The new production of Lulu at the Met (co-produced with major opera companies from Great Britain and the Netherlands) represents an astonishing feat of artistic collaboration between sound and sight. It would be hard to imagine a visual artist better suited to bringing Lulu into the 21st century than William Kentridge, who also co-created the sets for the Met’s 2010 production of Shostakovich’s opera The Nose. Kentridge was born in Johannesburg into a South African Jewish family—his parents were both lawyers who defended victims of apartheid—and his work often makes reference to the violence of Africa’s imperial history. But the brutality of such themes is often qualified by the childlike and melancholic way they dissolve, like dreamscapes that fuse historical specifics with fairy tales. His most characteristic works are charcoal drawings that come alive as stop-action films: People and objects congeal, then fade like smoke as new images take their place, leaving smudges like memory traces on the page. His Black Box/Chambre Noire, originally created while Kentridge was working on sets for a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, revisits Germany’s brutal suppression of the Herero uprising in present-day Namibia, an event that many consider the first genocide of the 20th century: It left up to an estimated 100,000 people dead.

But Kentridge has a whimsical side as well. A somewhat portly man in a white shirt with an old-fashioned pince-nez on his face, he carries himself with bemused irony. He often makes cameos in his own films, in which he manipulates the tools and clutter of the studio or sketches in old books. Sometimes he runs the films backward so that torn sheets of paper leap from the floor to his hands. In Six Drawing Lessons, his 2012 Norton Lectures at Harvard University, he played with genres, shifting between sober lectures on the nature of artistic creation and mock-scientific discourses on strategies for gold extraction from the South African hills. One of his most affecting works, the 2003 Tide Table, opens with the image of a suited man reading the newspaper in a deck chair on the beach, but then widens into an allegory about post-apartheid South Africa, alluding to the AIDS epidemic and the hard facts of human mortality, accompanied by the gentle music of the Congolese singer Franco.

For Lulu, Kentridge found inspiration in German Expressionism. The entire stage is overcrowded with the jagged and ink-black faces of Weimar-era modernist art, evoking most of all the primitivist woodcuts of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Brilliantly performed by Marlis Petersen, Lulu appears as an uncanny hybrid between woman and paper doll, with oversize paper gloves and a white cylinder obscuring her head. Her hair cropped in a Louise Brooks bob, Petersen plays Lulu as a modern woman, sexually confident and scornful of convention. As Alwa falls in love with Lulu in the second act, he makes explicit the equation between her sexuality and Berg’s musical genius. “Beneath these clothes,” he fawns, “your body is like music.”

The musicologist Douglas Jarman has argued that Lulu hinges on a seeming contradiction, between music of unsurpassed emotional intensity and a story line of the most brutal cynicism. The wound is healed thanks only to the overwhelming strength of the music itself, which offers a kind of moral argument transcending all violence and awakening pity, most of all for the Countess and for Lulu herself. Especially in the scenes between Lulu and Dr. Schoen, Berg’s music gestures toward sentiments of romantic love utterly foreign to Wedekind’s play. The strings play sustained passages that cite Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde and also evoke the D-major “fate theme” from Schoenberg’s symphonic poem, Pelleas und Melisande. In these moments, the orchestra doesn’t just accompany the violence onstage but actually challenges it, lending the drama a deeper humanity and elevating it to a plane of universal tragedy.

Lulu once labored under the reputation of “decadence,” a term used by the Nazis and others to conjure up fearful scenes of the immoral and grotesque. But that reputation is undeserved: If the libretto sets free a thousand demons from Pandora’s box, its sonic landscape offers more than what Adorno called “allegories of permanent catastrophe.” It also gives voice to a strange kind of hope— a longing, in Adorno’s words, for what has escaped repression. But here lies the challenge: In the difficult union between music and action, the humane element survives only if the music is given sufficient freedom. Despite its manifest brilliance, the Met’s new production does not always sustain the needed balance. Kentridge himself can hardly be blamed for imprinting the opera with a visual artistry so powerful that it threatens to overwhelm the stage. Massive black-and-white projections loom overhead, and the movable panels appear to be stained with ink. Anonymous faces grimace and leer, and at one point Berg himself is shown gazing down upon the action with melancholy eyes. There is beauty here, as well as aggression: Lulu’s murder occurs offstage, but her face, monstrous in size, is displayed on the screen that hides the awful deed. In the last instant of death, bold slashes of ink suddenly obscure her face, an effect nearly as gruesome as the act itself.

It may seem unkind to complain that an artist is too good; but with his inimitable gifts, Kentridge occasionally seems to step onto the stage as Lulu’s rival, while the music, though brilliantly conducted by Lothar Koenigs, cannot help but recede into the background. Such considerations, I confess, tempted me more than once to close my eyes so that I might better hear Berg’s music and leave behind both the horror and the beauty of Kentridge’s superb vision. In those moments, miraculously, Lulu seemed to have survived her awful fate.

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article stated that musicologist George Perle discovered an annotated score of Alban Berg’s Lulu that revealed the work’s secret dedication to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. In fact, the annotated score Perle discovered was for Berg’s “Lyric Suite,” not Lulu, though traces of a dedication are also extant in the opera. The text has been updated.