This weekend I’m totally in operagoer heaven, at least for me, because I’ve got great seats to the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Lulu. So this Saturday, from noon until five, I’ll be bathed in the decadent sounds of Alban Berg’s gloriously brutal depiction of a woman’s undoing. For me, this one show is a demonstration of my matured restraint: last time the Met offered this opera, I went all four times.
Now I’ve always held that the opening of any time-based work of art (a film, a piece of music, and to a certain extent a novel because you are dealing with chunks of actual—as well as imagined—time) can do wonders for how one perceives the entire thing. Start it off right, and you’ll frame the entire night. Lulu benefits from one of the strongest openings: a prologue wherein a carnival barker welcomes you in to experience the human menagerie in all its grotesque beauty (to the most sumptuous, extravagant, over-the-top music, part circus waltz, part imploding soul).
Opera reports are mostly riddled with spoiler alerts (“in the scene where she dies of consumption”) is if these plots aren’t worth following or caring about, so I’ll not be guilty of that here. But there are a few astonishing things in this piece: for one, it is kind of an inside joke for composers, being built with a series of small, shifting musical forms (the trio, the sonata) and yet still maintaining that dramatic heft opera needs. And the whole compositional edifice is one giant palindrome, made to represent Lulu’s social ascent and subsequent fall into ruin.
Plus, bonus: there’s a really famous serial killer—like the most famous in history, arguably—a in a cameo rôle, who doesn’t love that?
Now I don’t want to scare you off by describing the technique of atonality, because this kind of Expressionist tale (which is based on the film star Louise Brooks as seen through the eyes of playwright Frank Wedekind, one of those café society stars of fin de siecle Vienna) is the kind of story this music was built to tell, so its use is not only apt but rapturous. Yes, many freak out at the idea of “modern music,” but if you like anything that is beautifully deranged (I’d say that anything from Hitchcock to David Lynch, Kubrick to Stephen King, might owe a thing or two to Berg and this way of thinking) and singularly its own, this is the piece for you. It will scare you, it should scare you because it walks the dark side more than just about any other opera, sort of daring you to love it—which I do!
From all accounts, the musicianship is top-notch, even for this top-notch crew (with one Fabio Bondi replacing an ailing James Levine in the pit), with one opera superstar—Anne Sophie von Otter—in a supporting part. And the production! I could go on and on, but won’t. Just go, get your tickets, rush, stand if you must. This is truly one of those not-to-be-missed New York experiences.
Daniel Felsenfeld is a composer living in Brooklyn.