Object of Desire

October 09th, 2015

The heroine of Berg’s Lulu captivates all who cross her path. William Kentridge’s new production, starring Marlis Petersen in the title role and opening November 5, explores why all attempts to tame this so-called snake are doomed to fail.


When William Kentridge directed the Met premiere of Shostakovich’s absurdist one-act opera The Nose in 2010, his visually immersive staging became one of the unforgettable hits of the season. Now the acclaimed South African artist applies his visionary sensibility to another 20th-century masterpiece with his new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu. Marlis Petersen is Lulu—introduced in the opera’s prologue as a circus snake—the femme fatale she first inhabited at the Met in 2010, and Lothar Koenigs conducts the landmark score.

Berg’s second opera after Wozzeck, Lulu took a long time to reach the stage in the form we know today. Based on two plays by German dramatist Frank Wedekind, it was left unfinished at the composer’s premature death and had its posthumous world premiere in a partial, two-act version in Zurich in 1937. Berg’s widow long opposed the completion of the final act by another hand, and it wasn’t until 1979 in Paris that the entire Lulu received its first performance, with the third act completed by Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha based on Berg’s sketches. Only in the three-act version, which quickly established itself as the standard, does an audience get to experience the title character’s remarkable journey all the way to its tragic end. Director Kentridge recently spoke about his approach to one of opera’s most fascinating and controversial heroines.

The tale of Lulu’s rise and fall has gripped—even shocked—audiences for more than a century. How would you describe the core of the story?
To me, it’s about the fragility or impossibility of desire. Lulu is the object of desire of all the men in the opera—but she can’t be the woman the men imagine her to be or project onto her. She can never fulfill all the desires of both being the femme fatale and the faithful, quiet wife, just as the men can never be the people that Lulu hopes they will be. And in each case, this impossibility of desire ends in disaster. What’s interesting is that none of the characters is completely stable. It’s not as if they’re heroes and villains. Each person is driven to a different extent by their own obsessions and needs. The form of the opera is that of melodrama, of high emotion expressed at maximum intensity, but there are so many ambiguities and twists in people’s characters that when you think, “Oh, here is a straightforward, reliable person,” you suddenly discover that the strength of the obsession or desire is enough to upset all the most honorable traits. So in a sense, this is also a very nasty opera. It’s about the realpolitik of sex, of the engine that drives desire. And it’s a real opera in the sense that, by the end, there are many bodies strewn across the stage.

How did you develop your visual approach to bringing this story to the stage?
As with our production of The Nose, the visuals are very much a collaboration of the director, the video designer, the set designer, and the costume designer. The driving force behind the projections that construct the world in which the opera unfolds comes out of the work done in Germany in the 1920s and ’30s, the remnants of Expressionism. Ink is the primary medium of the production—ink drawings and sometimes drawings translated into woodcuts or linocuts. Essentially it’s the vehemence of a black brushstroke, the idea of trying to find some equivalent, visually, to the violence of the opera. It’s almost as if ink becomes the black blood that is spilled throughout the production—the sense of a brush mark across a sheet of paper having the effect of a knife across flesh. We also looked at Joseph Pabst’s 1929 silent film Pandora’s Box with Louise Brooks. And the woodcuts of Max Beckmann, Max Pechstein, and Otto Dix inspired our thinking about the production as well. Some of the images are based on photographs of the time. Alwa, the musician and lover of Lulu, is very much a self-portrait of Alban Berg, and we used a portrait of Berg to stand in for him.

How do video projections interact with the set?
From the beginning we’ve been thinking about the production in terms of finding a world in which we could move between seeing someone onstage and seeing someone lost inside an image. There’s an obvious connection in that one of the characters in the opera is a painter, and the painting he does of Lulu in the very first scene in fact continues through the production. So the set has to work in two ways. It has to work as a surface on which we can see the projections. Not necessarily flat—in fact, we found that a deep relief or different layers of the set work very well for holding an image and at the same time allowing it to fragment and to fall apart, to lose its stability. The projections work as scenery, but they can also represent a thought that one of the characters might be having, and sometimes we zoom right in to an abstraction of black or white, of rough brush marks, that feels appropriate to the mood of a scene. But the set also has to work as a theatrical space—as the different rooms, the artist’s studio, the garret in London, the gaming room in Paris, Dr. Schön’s house. So the furniture and the walls have to have an attention to art deco detail and materials, in addition to reflecting images.

You’ve found an innovative way to have Lulu’s costumes reflect her character. Can you tell us about that?
Greta Goiris, the costume designer, and I spent a long time looking through not only photographs of clothes of the period but also paintings, drawings, and films of the era. We’ve been trying to find things that seem to be at the edge, that are surprising, that are not the most predictable, to arrive at costumes that both refer to a specific time but that also shift and twist it, to turn those naturalistic costumes into something that works on stage. One of the questions when staging this opera is how to find the erotic. Where does it reside? It’s not about the most obvious symbols of sexual desire, because the nature of the obsession that people have with Lulu is much deeper and very different. It’s not just about physical beauty, although that’s obviously an important part of it. I think it has to do with being tantalized by indifference, with obsession fed by an indifference on the part of its object. In some theater productions Lulu is more or less undressed the whole way through, which can work very well with the Frank Wedekind plays on which Lulu is based, but it doesn’t work for me in the same way with the singing voice and the presence of Lulu in the opera. So there are some costumes that are a mixture of drawings and clothes that she wears, in which a piece of paper can stand in for her face or her breast or another part of her body—this is the direction we’re going in. All of this will evolve with the singers in the rehearsal room and on stage.

Lulu has been portrayed as a victim and a criminal, as a femme fatale and a naive young girl…
The tantalizing part of this opera is always the uncertainty of who Lulu is and how one reacts to her. Is she simply a femme fatale and is this a misogynistic opera about male desire and the evil of women? There’s an element of that somewhere in the background certainly, but it is so much more than that. It’s about showing the impossibility of being in control of the obsession and the desire that can take a person over. This is shown very much from the men’s point of view of looking at Lulu, but it also has to do with Lulu herself and what she needs and what she can’t have.

Marlis Petersen is perhaps the world’s leading performer of the role. Have you worked with her before?
Yes, Marlis sang Pamina in a production of The Magic Flute that I did many years ago, and even then she had an extraordinary certainty and confidence and strength that I think will be fantastic in the role of Lulu. I have not seen her perform it. It’s always a challenge that on the one hand you want a singer who is familiar with the role but who also, within a new production, wants to find the logic of the character in a way that may not be what they’ve done before. I’m really looking forward to that exploration.

How did you approach delving into Berg's revolutionary score?
There’s no doubt that the fourth time you listen to it, it makes much more sense than the first time; and the eighth time you hear it, every note feels lyrical and appropriate and necessary. That wasn’t obvious for me at the beginning. I suppose it’s the opera’s very difficulty that is the intriguing thing about Lulu. It’s known as one of the great operas of the 20th century, and part of creating this production for me was the task of saying, “Discover why musically and dramatically that is the correct judgment.” —Edited by Philipp Brieler