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.