Lulu for beginners?

I’m going to Lulu tomorrow.  During my blogging break I’ve been reading up on this reputedly difficult work.  Let’s talk about this “reading up” thing for a minute.

As I wrote about regarding The Nose, I hold the unusual belief that most twentieth-century opera is more accessible for the non-regular opera-goer than the standard nineteenth-century rep.  Most twentieth-century operatic composers were engaged with the beast Modernism, and anyone familiar with Modernism’s exponents in other art forms has a good access point into the musical and dramatic concerns of twentieth-century opera.  I’ve tested this thesis by dragging arty but not operatically-inclined friends to various performances and think that it has some truth to it.  (Coincidentally, The Awl just tried this out, on Lulu!  And it worked!)  Twentieth-century operas generally defy newcomers’ bad stereotypes of opera (long arias of minimal dramatic consequence, cliched and predictable plots) and give them some real dramatic material to think about.  Also, they are often fairly short.  Lulu isn’t short, though, I guess you can’t have everything.

The challenges posed by Alban Berg’s final opera (yes, that’s Lulu) are less ones of dramatic content–I speak for my generation when I say that any opera involving Jack the Ripper = AWESOME–than of musical style.  This goes double for someone very accustomed to nineteenth-century tonal conventions, though that is not a given among non-opera-goers.  The complexities of Berg’s intricate, sometimes sui generis formal structures and non-tonal musical language are formidable and often difficult to hear.  I listened to the broadcast on Saturday, and wanted to throw something at the radio during the commentary bits.  Not only were there factual errors but a 20-second explanation of serialism does absolutely nothing to help you hear anything in Berg’s score.  Given 20 seconds on the radio, a Berg newcomer might be better off with connections to things they can recognize, like a definition of expressionism that includes the source author, Franz Wedekind, perhaps mentioning the recent Spring Awakening musical also based on Wedekind, and maybe an artist like Egon Schiele rather than a description of an unhearable tone row.  I hate to say it, but if you feel the need to crack this sucker open, to appreciate the workings of the score on a technical level, it’s going to take some patience and some work.  But I don’t think you will regret it.

(By the way, to amend the 20-second tone row definition, Berg rarely uses full rows! And he has an uneasy relationship with sequence!  News: Schoenberg didn’t give out tickets when you didn’t follow all his rules. Sorry, it is hard to write about the Lulu experience and keep it meta and not be hopelessly sidetracked into, you know, Berg.)

To return to my first point, I would never say you have to read a small library on Berg to appreciate Lulu.  I think most open-minded people can enjoy the piece with no preparation.  It’s a great first opera, and I encourage any Puccini-lover who usually avoids atonal works to give it a shot too, approaching it as something new.  Lulu is an amazingly effective drama with a strong plot and a lot of literary interest.  However, if you want to dig a little deeper, there is a LOT to be found.

You want books?  Here are some places to start.

Douglas Jarman, Lulu (Cambridge University Press, 1991)
If you only want to read 130 pages on Lulu, make them this book, part of the Cambridge Opera Handbooks series.  It’s a brief overview with a history of the work’s convoluted development from conception to premiere in two acts to premiere in three acts, followed by a brief and clear description of the musical structure (appreciable to some extent for non-music readers), a more detailed analysis of one scene (the final one), and some interpretive thoughts.  It’s authoritative, it’s concise, it’s readable, and I might disagree with Jarman’s thoughts about operatic production but that’s only a small portion of the book.

George Perle, The Operas of Alban Berg: Volume 2, Lulu (University of California Press, 1985)
If Jarman isn’t enough, Perle is the next level up.  The topics covered are basically the same, but the level of detail is considerably greater.  It’s meticulous and fascinating, but most definitely the work of a theorist, with a greater emphasis on musical analysis than hermeneutics.  Some of the theory can get pretty thick, but those sections are easy enough to skip if you don’t care about pitch class sets.  (However, if you don’t care about sets, your knowledge of Lulu’s harmonic language isn’t going to get much of anywhere.  I never said this was going to be easy.)  You will need a score to follow along with to fully appreciate the analysis, and if you feel at sea with the terms try this or this for a general introduction to the analysis of non-tonal music.

Franz Wedekind, Lulu (Erdgeist, Die Büchse der Pandora) (Reclam, 1995)
The source material, in German.

Franz Wedekind, Lulu (Applause, 2000)
English translation of the above by Eric Bentley.  I have not read it and cannot vouch for its accuracy or quality.

If you have access to ProQuest databases, you should definitely look up:
Silvio José dos Santos, Portraying Lulu: Desire and Identity in Alban Berg’s “Lulu” (Brandeis, 2003)
A dissertation examining Berg’s development of Lulu as a character, particularly through the role of her portrait in the opera (it has its own set!), with a much more significant gender studies perspective than any of the above.  It is also much more readable for non-analysts than Perle.

See you on Thursday with my review!

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  1. Ooh, thanks for the study links. Also, it's (for me, counter-intuitively) true about modernism. Made a friend this year who was looking for recommendations of "New York things" to do before she left the city, I said OPERA, she said she was bored by Boheme, I told her to go to "The Nose," and Shostakovitch, Thomas, and Rossini later, she's a self-described opera addict. Victory.