PROLOGUE. Somewhere in the German-speaking world, around 1871. A Ringmaster, outside his circus tent, invites the audience to see some wild animals. He shows the wildest of the lot, the "serpent" Lulu, carried by a stagehand. We will soon see, he declares, how she snares people, begetting evil deeds.
ACT I. In a Painter's studio, Lulu, an actress and dancer, is posing for her portrait. Married to Dr. Goll, an elderly Medical Professor, she is the mistress of Dr. Schön, an editor in chief, who rescued her from the gutter as a child. While Schön watches the work in progress, his son, the composer Alwa, enters, then excuses himself and leaves with his father.
Alone with Lulu, the distracted Painter tries to make love to her, but she keeps escaping. A knock is heard. Knowing that it is Lulu's husband, the Painter hesitates to answer, so Dr. Goll breaks the door down. Horrified at finding the two alone together, he collapses and dies of a stroke. Lulu realizes she is now a rich widow. Frightened at the prospect of his apparent luck, the Painter questions her about her moral beliefs and finds she has none. He prays for strength.
In an elegant drawing room, the Painter -- now married to Lulu -- brings the morning mail, including commissions for his work. An announcement of Schön's engagement to a society girl disturbs Lulu. As the Painter looks lovingly at her, the doorbell rings. The caller turns out to be Schigolch, an old derelict who is somehow part of Lulu's past. Alone with her, he asks for money -- a request she has heard often -- and compliments her on her good fortune, but she reveals she is bored. When the bell rings again, he leaves, and Schön arrives, referring to the departing Schigolch as Lulu's father and asking her to remove herself from his life. The Painter, he points out, must sooner or later become aware of their continuing affair, but Lulu says that her husband is blinded by love. Schön reminds her how he helped her make two good marriages; now that he is engaged, he wants no scandal. Lulu replies that if she belongs to anyone it is to Schön, the only one who has given her real attention. When the Painter comes in, Lulu leaves him to learn some facts of life from Schön, who reminds him he has married a fortune. Schön explains he has known Lulu since she was twelve and has tried to get her out of his life. Now, he says, the Painter must assert himself and make Lulu behave like a respectable wife. Deeply shocked, the Painter steps out and locks himself in another room. When Lulu appears, followed by Alwa, the three break down the door and discover that the Painter has killed himself. Schön calls the police, and Lulu predicts he will end up marrying her.
Backstage at a theater, Alwa pours champagne for Lulu, who is changing costume. He recalls how he first met her, shortly before his mother's death, and wanted his father to marry her so she would always be around. An African Prince appears after Lulu leaves for her next cue; he hopes to marry her. There is a commotion: Lulu has pretended to faint onstage after seeing Schön in the audience with his fiancée. Schön promptly appears in her dressing room, indignantly ordering her back onstage. Alwa tells the theater director to go on with the next number, then leaves Schön with Lulu, who delivers an ultimatum: he must renounce his fiancée for her. She dictates the letter, which Schön calls his death sentence. As the bell rings for her next number, Lulu calmly goes onstage.
ACT II. Lulu, now married to Schön, is saying good-bye to a visitor, the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, who admires her. As the two women leave the sumptuous drawing room, Schön -- irrational with jealousy of real and imagined rivals -- laments the degradation of his final years of life. Complaining to him of his recent neglect, Lulu coaxes him into their bedroom.
Geschwitz reenters and hides as several other hangers-on appear -- Schigolch, an Athlete, a Schoolboy -- to wait for Lulu, who comes in to make pleasantries with them. Schigolch denies he is Lulu's father, and says she is a Wunderkind, a miraculous child of creation. A Manservant -- himself infatuated with Lulu -- announces Dr. Schön, so the Athlete and Schoolboy hide, but it turns out to be Alwa. Schön watches from a distance as Lulu and Alwa converse; at length Alwa passionately declares his love, though she murmurs she poisoned his mother. Schön escorts his son out of the room, then returns to look for the Athlete, who he knows is hiding. He is carrying a revolver, which he gives Lulu, telling her to use it on herself because of the shame she has brought both of them. Trying to calm him, Lulu calls herself blameless for whatever others may have done on her account; Schon turns the pistol in her hand toward Lulu and seems about to pull the trigger. When he is distracted by the emergence of the frightened Schoolboy from hiding, Lulu empties the revolver into Schön's back. The wounded man calls for water, but champagne is all she can find. He warns Alwa that he is her next victim, catches sight of Geschwitz, and dies. Though Lulu begs Alwa to let her escape, he bars her way until the police arrive.
Following a musical interlude that traces Lulu's trial, conviction, imprisonment, and eventual escape, the curtain rises on the same setting, approximately one year later. Alwa, Geschwitz and the Athlete, planning Lulu's escape, wait for Schigolch, who brings passports, then leaves with Geschwitz to rescue Lulu from prison. The Athlete, planning a marriage of expediency to Lulu as his show partner, complains of all the effort he has had to contribute toward her escape plans. The Schoolboy appears, having run away from reform school; to convince him that Lulu is dead, the Athlete shows a clipping that says she was hospitalized in prison with cholera, then throws him out. Lulu, leaning on Schigolch, appears wearing Geschwitz' clothes, her escape disguise. Angry at finding her wasted by illness, the Athlete threatens to go to the police. He leaves, as does Schigolch, who has to pick up train tickets. Geschwitz has traded places with Lulu in prison in order to get her out; Lulu tells Alwa how Geschwitz infected herself, then Lulu, with cholera so that the escape could be made through the prison hospital. Seductively she asks Alwa for a kiss, to be sure he will protect and accompany her. Though she remarks that they are lying on the sofa on which his father died, Alwa is carried away.
ACT III. Lulu and Alwa have escaped to Paris, trailed by the Athlete, who proposes a toast at a gambling party in their fashionable salon as the curtain rises. Guests are discussing the booming market in Jungfrau Railway stock. A Marquis, knowing Lulu is wanted for murder by the German police, blackmails her, intending to sell her to a brothel in Cairo. Lulu protests she cannot sell herself -- the only thing that is truly hers. They are interrupted by people returning from the gaming tables, and as Lulu reads a note from the Athlete, threatening to inform on her unless she pays a large amount, the guests talk about their good luck at gambling. When the Athlete reappears, she says that her money is gone; he replies that she and Alwa still own Jungfrau Railway shares, and he gives her until the following evening to produce the money. As he moves away, a telegram arrives for the Banker; the market in Jungfrau shares has crashed.
Schigolch appears, hoping to wheedle money out of Lulu, and learns of her predicament; he offers to push the Athlete out the window if Lulu can arrange for the latter to come to his apartment that evening. Since the Athlete has been bothering Countess Geschwitz with offers of his services as a gigolo, Lulu feels she can get him to Schigolch's place under the pretense of meeting with the countess. As Schigolch and Lulu step out, the Athlete reappears and is questioned by the Marquis, who senses a competitor in his extortion scheme. He finds that his hunch is correct and leaves; Lulu then reenters to tell the Athlete that Geschwitz is waiting for him at a certain address; the countess, she adds, has promised to pay her for arranging the meeting, and this is the only way Lulu can get money for him. He agrees, leaving for the dining room, and Lulu calls Geschwitz to say that for her sake Geschwitz must submit to the Athlete, who reappears to escort her out. Lulu then arranges to change clothes with a young Groom. The gamblers come in, arguing, and the Banker reveals the worthlessness of the Jungfrau shares he has been offered in payment. Shaken by their losses, they leave. Lulu hurriedly tells Alwa that the police are on their way and leads him out the servants' entrance as they arrive -- and discover that "Lulu" is the Groom in her clothes.
Their funds gone, Lulu, Alwa and Schigolch have taken refuge in a garret in London, where Lulu has been forced into prostitution. Schigolch hustles Alwa out of the room when Lulu returns with her first client, an eccentric professor afraid of being discovered. Next to arrive is the faithful Geschwitz, who has salvaged Lulu's portrait. Alwa, briefly inspired by the sight of Lulu's former beauty, hangs it on the wall, where the others join in admiring it. Lulu goes to find another client and returns with the Black Man, who says his father is emperor of an African country. Refusing to pay in advance, he tries to take Lulu by force and deals Alwa a fatal blow when the latter tries to restrain him. After Schigolch removes the corpse, Geschwitz contemplates suicide but realizes that it would mean nothing to Lulu. When Lulu returns with a third client, she tells him Geschwitz is her crazy sister. The client haggles over the price and is about to leave, but Lulu, feeling a desperate need for him, settles for less. As they go into her room, Geschwitz resolves to return to Germany and find a new life working for women's rights. Lulu's death shriek is heard, and when Geschwitz frantically tries to open the door, the murderer -- Jack the Ripper -- stabs her as well, then looks in irritation for a towel with which to wipe the blood from his hands. As he leaves, the dying Geschwitz murmurs that she will be near Lulu in death.
-- courtesy of Opera News