Becoming Lulu

October 28th, 2015

Marlis Petersen brings her celebrated portrayal of Berg’s heroine back to the Met in William Kentridge’s production—her final performances of her signature role.

This is the tenth new production of Lulu you’ve starred in over your career. What makes you want to revisit this character and her story again and again?
It’s like Pandora’s box somehow. It’s a source of neverending information about the fate of a woman. When I started, it was fascination with a young, ungraspable child who’s just beginning to live. Now that I have a deeper sense of the character, it’s more about the psychology of what happens in her relationships, and about this terrible fate she has—going from one man to another, never getting the one she really wants. From the moment she defines herself in the “Lied der Lulu,” everything goes downward, and it ends with Jack the Ripper. It’s the most terrible story ever. But it shows us such great facets of life, and that’s why this piece, written in the ’20s, is still very, very up to date. For me, it’s fascinating also to see how every different director deals with this. It stays new for me.

How much does your portrayal change from production to production? Is there a core of the character that always remains the same?
I think I have a certain Lulu seed in me, a kind of understanding. But when I encounter a director, I have to sort of erase everything I know and melt into the concept of this particular director. And the concepts are all very different. Some directors go deep into the psychology of this woman. Some try to keep the voyeuristic look on the story. Some see it very visually—like William Kentridge, of course. All these different elements add up to a big kaleidoscope of Lulu pieces that I’ve been collecting over the last 18 years.

Tell us about the music and how you approach it.
Berg himself said he imagined a light, Mozartian voice for Lulu. So I try to keep it very close to a classical tone, which also makes it easier to understand the text. For me, it’s not so much about the sound, it’s about the parlando, the “speaking” style of singing. The first act especially has a lot of parlando and coloratura. The second is more lyrical, and the third has lots of dramatic eruptions, until it ends with this beautiful death music. But overall I try to stick very closely to a classic tone, so it’s easier to follow for the audience and becomes more like a play.

You sing a wide range of music, from Baroque to Mozart to Verdi to Aribert Reimann. How does Lulu compare to some of the other operas in your repertoire?
I’ve been singing the role for such a long time that the music feels implanted in my vocal cords. It’s a bit of a miracle, too, because I never intended to become the number one Lulu. But one production just came after the other, and now the music is somewhere inside me. It’s very strange—like a vocation. As for the singing, it’s something between Konstanze [in Die Entführung aus dem Serail], a very demanding coloratura role, and a lot of clever economy you need to have from beginning to end in order to not get tired. The music itself is not really contemporary, more like early contemporary. Berg used the 12-tone technique in a way that’s very different from Schoenberg. There’s still a late-Romantic touch to it. Lulu really has everything—a little Mozart, the Romantic, the contemporary. It’s somewhere in between all of this, like a big melting pot.

Is it true you’ll be retiring the role after this production?
Yes, it will be my final Lulu ever. In my last production, I accidentally bumped into a glass wall that was part of the set—and when these things happen you think, “Okay, it’s time to say goodbye!” I’m really looking forward to this production and, and for me, it’s a great gift that New York will be my last one. —Philipp Brieler