olga neuwirth
Olga Neuwirth
Notes on American Lulu (2006-2011)

Extremes have always fascinated me, sensual and abstract extremes, and both can be found in Alban Berg’s Lulu. Yet it was not my aim to recreate an authentic Alban Berg, but to take a fresh look from the perspective of a woman, a composer of my generation, at this mystical female figure (who has been seen as an “enigmatic woman”, a “serpent”, “demonic woman”, “sphinx” or “child woman”, and characterized by famous scholarly interpreters of women, such as Krafft-Ebing, or Sigmund Freud and his associates). The female character of Lulu has always been seen through the eyes of men. This male view of leading female characters in operas has often puzzled me.
While the Second Viennese School is well known for their adaptations of works by other composers, it seemed natural for me to reconsider in particular the opera figure of Lulu. I believe that precisely this unfinished, famous 20th-century music theater and its characters lend themselves to being rethought by each generation. For in his music, Berg sounds the depths of the story in all its psychological nuances and offers musical solutions for everything.

Stirred by a film I had seen as a child – namely, Otto Preminger’s Carmen Jones from 1954, in which the director took the opera Carmen and set it in the South of the USA, and cast all the roles with African-Americans – I decided to transplant Alban Berg’s Lulu to New Orleans and New York. Drawing on Berg’s idea of putting Wedekind’s drama, which was originally set around 1900, in a new social context around 1930, I moved my reinterpretation of the opera to the US in the 1950s and 1970s, that is, against the backdrop of the civil rights movement, counterculture and diverse liberation movements. My father is a jazz musician, and I grew up with jazz and jazz musicians. It was the enthusiastic accounts of my father’s US colleagues about African-American Edward Bland’s documentary The Cry of Jazz (1958) that motivated me, at the early age of twelve, to write a theater play revolving around African-American jazz musicians in Harlem. To my pleasure, it was then performed at a school theater festival in 1980. Though with regards to a “relocated Lulu”, I was also interested in exploitation films. From the 1930s onwards, they were often low-budget films that, due to their desire for lurid subject matters, dealt with violence, sexual acts and other kinds of delicate issues. The fluid boundary between trash, kitsch and counterculture is what I find especially fascinating in blaxploitation films like Melvin Van Peebles' Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song or Jack Hill’s Coffy.

In the opera Lulu, the formal structure of Berg’s rich musical language includes not only a number of absolute forms, such as sonata, arietta or cavatina, but also English waltz and ragtime. Due to the spreading popularity of jazz in the 1920s, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith and Ernst Krenek, and others, all wrote compositions influenced by jazz. And apparently this did not go unnoticed by Berg. These influences were mentioned in a correspondence between Alban Berg and Erwin Schulhoff, who had become acquainted with jazz, ragtime and American dance music in the early 1920s via his friend George Grosz, who collected phonographic recordings of American music. This is why I chose to have the passages in Berg’s score that were marked “film music” and music for a “jazz band” performed on a Wonder Morton organ. For Berg’s use of film and composition of Lulu began in 1929, and this coincides with the heyday of this special theater organ. One of the only still functioning Wonder Morton organs which is used to accompany screenings today is at Loew’s Jersey Theater in Jersey City. When I was living in New York in 2007 and exploring ideas for American Lulu, I began researching theater organs. I discovered there was a Wonder Morton organ that, after years of meticulous work, had been restored and reinstalled at Loew’s Jersey Theater. The Robert Morton Pipe Organ Company had originally built it in 1928/1929 for one of its so-called Wonder theaters in the New York metropolitan area. In 2010, I contacted the Garden State Theater Organ Society, which is responsible for this organ, and was eventually allowed to record Alban Berg’s “film music” and music for a “jazz band” on this fascinating, gigantic theater organ.

I have set a major part of the story of American Lulu in the social context of the white racist South and the civil rights movement. For this reason, between the deliberately hard cuts I made in Berg’s music, the audience hears fragments from speeches by Martin Luther King and poems by June Jordan, one of the most important contemporary African-American poets. Consistent with this relocation to New Orleans in the 1950s, Lulu, Geschwitz (in my adaptation, Eleanor, a blues singer) and Schigolch (Clarence, to whom I have assigned ragtime music in Act Three) are African-Americans.
In analogy to the music for a “jazz band” in Act One, with its clarinets, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, percussion, banjo, piano, double bass and sousaphone, I have reorchestrated Alban Berg’s music in the first two acts for a brass and woodwind ensemble, and electric guitar, electric piano, percussion as well as a small section of strings. I took this course because it is the music of Lulu’s flashback to New Orleans in the 1950s, the birthplace of jazz and blues. As a reference to this music, which originated along the Mississippi Delta, a melody played on a calliope is heard introducing “Recollection” (the flashback) that is set in New Orleans. The calliope is a steam-driven keyboard instrument with whistles. Invented in 1855, calliopes were later often installed on the rooftops of Mississippi steamboats, and played repeatedly throughout the voyage. Louis Armstrong, who was born in New Orleans, also started his career playing the trumpet in a jazz ensemble on a Mississippi steamer.
As Berg emphasizes in his essay “The Problem of Opera”, published in 1928, the use of cinema as a cutting-edge medium does not in itself generate modern music. Rather for him it was more about formal analogies, which was why it became important for me to find a meaningful analogy for the transformation of sound in my reorchestration of Act One and Act Two of Alban Berg’s music. It is because of this reorchestration that Berg’s music has a different sound and, in my opinion, had to be presented, as already mentioned, in a formal analogy: in “Recollection”, a flashback into the past.
My Act Three takes place in 1970s New York. Lulu has come up in the world and is now a high-class whore who appears to be completely trapped within herself. With contacts to important business people and politicians, she is entrusted – unasked – with matters both private and public. I have always found Berg’s deus-ex-machina ending with Jack the Ripper rather silly: after great trials and tribulations, two women are simply slaughtered by a serial killer and: The End. Which is why I decided to conceive my new Act Three as an unresolved murder case.

Perhaps I see the female figure of Lulu less exaltedly and romantically than the men who “conceived” her or those who have reinterpreted her over the years. In my version, Lulu is a rather “cold woman”, a narcissist, who gets whatever she wants at any one moment. And yet due to the emptiness inside of her, she remains dissatisfied and turns herself into a market commodity whose value is sometimes higher and sometimes lower. Lulu alternates between humiliating and pampering others in such quick succession that it seems like a form of brainwashing, rapidly hammering away. Such behavior is alien to me and not particularly likeable. In my opera, Lulu and Eleanor come from similar backgrounds. They have spent their lives surrounded by racism, as well as white and black machismo. Both of them were victims of abuse in childhood, a circumstance that has worked towards trying to rob them of their sense of self and to make them mere objects.
I would like to think people have the option of self-determination, even if this path is more strenuous than letting themselves be kept and allowing others to go all goo-goo eyed over them. Tortured and torturing Lulu, whether an exterminating angel or bringer of happiness – as she has often been described – lives off and through men. She becomes entangled in a web of dubious intrigues and power games. Eleanor, that other woman, insists on the inevitability of pain and her subjectivity. She struggles for freedom and treads a difficult but self-determined path. She confidently searches for her own form of expression, her own identity. But once again, what ultimately counts for us today is: Whose voice is heard?

This commission from the Komische Oper Berlin, one of the city’s opera houses, means a great deal to me because of the production history of Alban Berg’s Lulu. The opera was supposed to premiere under the direction of Erich Kleiber in Berlin during the 1934/35 season. By 1930, the Nazi Party already held 107 seats in the Reichstag (in comparison: the Social Democratic Party of Germany held 143). After Kleiber’s premiere of Berg’s “Lulu Symphony” with the Prussian State Orchestra in 1934, a vicious press campaign was launched against Berg and Kleiber. Paul Zschorlich from the “Deutsche Zeitung” railed, for instance, against the “glorification of vice”, sick “cocaine-clouded music” and “musical Bolshevism”. He especially attacked the “typical Kleiber audience, in which the proportion of Jewish listeners was, as always at Kleiber concerts, unmistakably large”. He ended by stating “there’s no place for cultural experiments like the Alban Berg concert”. Four days after the concert, and under pressure from the Hitler regime, Erich Kleiber resigned from his post as general music director. In January 1935, Kleiber left Germany in protest of Nazi cultural policies. Berg’s music was not performed in Germany again until after 1945. Alban Berg’s Lulu – albeit in modified form – will now have its premiere in Berlin after all.
(New York, March 2011)

Translated from the German by Catherine Kerkhoff-Saxon