A Return Visit to Bayreuth!

Gentle Readers:

Over the past 10 months, TheCulturedTraveler has presented fresh content for every blog entry. However – and for the 1st time ever – I’m reblogging and updating a post from last November in honor of the start of the Bayreuth Festival in the little town of Bayreuth, Germany. In less than 2 hours from the publication of this post, the 2016 season will be underway.

Of course, what would a Bayreuth Festival be without some gossip and lots of controversy and, of course, this season is no exception. Each year, the Festival presents one new production. This year, it’s the Meister’s ultimate work, Parsifal, which is replacing a landmark production by Stefan Herbeim, retired in 2012. This year’s production was to have been conducted by Andris Nelsons but, less than 4 weeks before the premiere performance, which starts this afternoon at 4:00 PM Bayreuth time, he abruptly walked out of the production and out of Bayreuth.

Read about it here:

New York Times
And something a little more dishy here:
Slipped Disc
 
So I hope you enjoy our little trip down Bayreuth’s memory lane. Here goes:
There is a opera house in Bayreuth (pronounced bye-roit) Germany, which was built between 1872 – 75 for the express purpose of presenting Richard Wagner’s magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen. For those of you unfamiliar with the Ring, Wagner spent over 20 years composing these 4 operas or, more specifically, a Prologue (Das Rheingold) with 3 operas to follow (Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). If nothing else, the audacity of an artist creating an entirely new style of music and operatic presentation spread over 4 evenings (and 15+ hours) has to be respected. This grand work would be presented as a Festival and, indeed his theatre is called the Festspielhaus (Festival House). The demands (and, hopefully, the rewards) of presenting the Ring placed upon the singers, orchestra, designers and, not least, the audience, would be unprecedented.

Bayreuth - R Wagner
Richard Wagner – The Meister

Why Bayreuth? Wagner wanted a location that was far away from virtually anything that would interfere with the audience’s complete concentration on and attention to his Ring. Additionally, he needed a huge stage on which to present the operas. There is another opera house in Bayreuth that Wagner thought might work, as the stage was unusually deep. However, when Wagner saw the opera house, he thought it was too rococo for him and the Ring. He wanted something much simpler that, again, would not distract his audience from what he had called his Gesamtkunstwerk, defined by Webster as “an art work produced by a synthesis of various art forms (such as music and drama)”.

Bayreuth - the Other Opera House
The other opera house – too rococo??

And another challenge that continues to this day: Bayreuth is not easy to get to (unless you live somewhere in Europe and like to drive). The first time I attended the Festival, I was able to fly from New York to Frankfurt and then fly on a “puddle-hopper” to Bayreuth. Nowadays, you’d need a private plane to fly into Bayreuth, which, in the alternative, leaves you with a 4+ hour train ride from Frankfurt (with a change of train in Nuremberg). Or you could fly from Frankfurt to Nuremberg and then train it to Bayreuth. Any way you slice it, it’s a LONG trip!

Bayreuth Map
Getting to Bayreuth

In order to get his theatre built, Wagner finagled the funds from mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, who was entirely under Wagner’s spell ever since he had seen a performance of Lohengrin as a child. (Wagner had that effect on many people. He was, by most accounts, a specious person but, also, he was extremely seductive when he wanted something from you, and Wagner was, arguably, the most important and influential artist of the 19th century.)

Bayreuth Ludwig
King Ludwig of Bavaria

The theatre was unique when it was built and still is. Inspired by the Greek amphitheaters, the main floor is fan-shaped and has 30 rows. Behind and above are several sections (loge and balcony) and, of course, a royal box for the Swan King (Ludwig). There are 1,900 seats altogether and no boxes for the “important people”. Seating was intended to be entirely democratic.


The Festspielehaus

Bayreuth - Interior
Inside the Festspielhaus

The most unusual feature of the theatre is that the orchestra pit is famously and entirely concealed from view of the audience. Wagner intentionally designed it this way so that there would be no distractions when watching his grand works. Additionally, Wagner’s theatre was the first ever to present the operas with the house lights entirely turned off, an innovation at the time. In this way, the audience, sitting entirely in the dark, couldn’t “yoo-hoo” at friends and frenemies during the performance and had to pay attention. The beginning ofDas Rheingold with its ominous E-flat bass notes which morph into the music of the Rhine river is played in complete darkness, so dark that you can barely see your hand in front of your face. Imagine what that must have been like for audiences accustomed to a totally different experience when attending the opera. It was nothing less than revolutionary.

Bayreuth Orchestra Pit
The invisible orchestra pit

Wagner originally had the crazy idea that he would build this theatre, the Ringwould be presented and, afterwards, the theatre would be torn down. Well, that didn’t happen, did it? Wiser heads (including his own) prevailed and after the world premiere of the completed Ring in 1876, plans were immediately made for another Festival at which all of the mistakes of the first year (and there were many, many mistakes) would be corrected.

But it was another 6 years before the next Festival and, as it happened, the Ringwas not presented. Instead, it was the world premiere of Parsifal that the audience heard and which Wagner had composed with the Festspielhaus’ unique acoustic in mind. This time, Wagner had a complete triumph: the perfect opera, with the perfect cast and a perfect production (perfect, at least, for 1882). Buoyed by this success, plans were made to get the Ring back into the theatre pronto. And then, 6 months later, Wagner died in Venice.

It took several years, but the Festival was eventually resurrected by Wagner’s widow, Cosima (who, incidentally, was the daughter of Franz Liszt).

Bayreuth R Wagner Cosima Siegfried
Family Portrait: Cosima, Siegfried, Richard

Over time, certain traditions were created that continue to the present day. It was decided that, in addition to the Ring and Parsifal, only the Master’s matureworks (Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde) would be presented. Without fail, the Festival would open each year on July 25th and close on August 28th. The Festival would be a workshop, at which each production would be presented for several years and, in each successive season, return to the rehearsal studio to refine, improve and rethink each opus.

After Cosima’s death, the Festival was handed over to her son, Siegfried (who, by the way, was GAY, but people didn’t talk about such things back then). Upon his premature death in 1930, the Festival was taken over (stolen??) by his widow (wait – he was MARRIED????), Winifred, who presided over the Festival for the next 14 tumultuous years.

You see, during the 1920s, she had become friends with this up and coming politician of whom she was much enamored. In fact, she was so bewitched by this charismatic young man that, or so the story goes, she provided him with the paper on which he wrote his most famous book: Mein Kampf. And that’s how Adolf Hitler – who was Richard Wagner’s #1 fan – came to be a fixture at Bayreuth through the 1930s and, finally, the 1944 Festival, after which the theatre shut down (almost for good).

Bayreuth - Hitler
Winifred, Adolf and Wagner Progeny

But wait: Siegfried and Winifred had 2 sons – Wieland and Wolfgang who, after the war (and after being denazified), were allowed to reopen the Festival in 1951. Because there was no money, and because there could be no compromises on the presentation of the music, Wieland caused another revolution by what he put on the stage which was, basically, nothing except the singers, some very simple set pieces (such as a circular platform for the presentation of the Ring) and the most effective lighting that had to that time been seen in a theatre. It caused a sensation: although the old guard was outraged at what they were (or more correctly, weren’t) seeing, there were others who were enchanted and, in fact, relieved not to be seeing all that Teutonic stuff strewn all over the stage.

I think it was a masterstroke of luck that the Festival was practically bankrupt after the war, which enabled Wieland and, to a much lesser extent, Wolfgang (who didn’t possess anywhere near the talent of his brother) to create a new style of presenting their grandfather’s work, which completely severed it from any connection to Hitler and the Nazis. In fact, Wieland was solely responsible for ushering in “Der Neue Bayreuther” or New Bayreuth.

Compare and contrast:

Bayreuth - Original Rheinmaidens
The original Rhinemaidens, 1876

Bayreuth - Chereau Rhinemaidens
Patrice Chereau’s Rhinemaidens, 1976

Since 1951 and the reopening of the postwar Festival, there have been more revolutions: the Centenary Ring in 1976, staged by the late, great Patrice Chereau and conducted by Pierre Boulez. It was Chereau’s concept to present the operas in Wagner’s own time (and during the Industrial Revolution) and to focus on the evils of capitalism and anti-Semitism. Chereau, who had directed only one opera before taking on the Ring, was a masterful director who had no preconceived notions about these operas and worked from the text. The singers in this production who most benefitted from working with Chereau – Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, Donald McIntyre as Wotan, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Heinz Zednik as both Loge and Mime – gave the performances of their careers and presented acting that was so natural and believable that it created a very special experience for the audience.

Bayreuth - Chereau ca 1976
Patrice Chereau, ca. 1976

Bayreuth Chereau Rheingold

Bayreuth Chereau Walkure Jones Hofmann

Bayreuth Chereau Walkure

Bayreuth Chereau Gotterdammerung
Images from the Chereau Centenary Ring, 1976

Some interesting anecdotes about these premiere performances:

The initial performance of each opera was broadcast around the world and the audience got more and more testy as each production unfolded. Now it wasn’t necessarily unusual to hear booing at the Festspielhaus at the end of a performance, but how about at the beginning of Act III of GötterdämmerungDURING THE MUSIC?? You can actually hear the opening of the act, imagine the curtain rising and, then, there it is – LOTS of boos, along with some segments of the audience “shushing” the dissenters, or were THEY the dissenters?? The production was so controversial that it’s hard to tell.

My favorite report from that premiere Ring season – perhaps apocryphal – is the story of the two grande dames – middle or late age, impeccably dressed, of some importance – who got into a bit of an altercation at the conclusion of one of the performances. What began with some pushing and shoving and lots of verbal abuse, quickly escalated when one of them decided to pull off the other’s earring, not realizing that the other dame had pierced ears. Yes, you got it: she removed not only the other dame’s earring but the earlobe as well. Yes, Wagnerites are so passionate about the Master’s works that blood will be spilled.

Fast forward to the Festival of 1980 and the retirement of Chereau’s Ring. I happened to hear the very last performance of  Götterdämmerung on a radio broadcast and what a difference 4 years makes. At the conclusion ofGötterdämmerung, the curtain calls (and cheering, no boos this time) lasted for something like NINETY minutes! Whatever it was that repelled and outraged the audience in 1976, they were now completely under the spell of a masterful and game changing production.

So, after all that, you wanna go to Bayreuth? Any opera lover worth her salt should make that pilgrimage at least once. Hold on. It’s not that easy.

Remember when I said that the theatre had 1,900 seats? Generally speaking, there are 30 performances presented each year for a total of 57,000 available seats. However, attendees to Bayreuth are not going to travel all that way to see one show – they’ll probably want to see everything presented that season (usually the Ring and 3 other operas).

So, there are 57,000 available seats. But each year, the Festival gets something like 250,000 requests for seats. And each of those people wants to see everything, too. In the past, ticketing was managed by the “Wagner computer” and, if you applied every year without fail (you’d be punished if you missed even one year), the typical waiting period to actually get seats was about 10 years!!! Nowadays, some tickets for each season are available on the internet at the Festival’s website and, if you’re fast and lucky enough, you might even secure seats. These intrepid souls may actually hop to the front of the line and get in, and good luck to you!

2016 UPDATE: I just happened to go onto the Festival’s website this past weekend and – lo and behold!! – it was possible to snag a pair of excellent seats for the 2nd Ring, which starts in about 2 weeks. Over the past few years – due, in part to the German government’s intervention – tickets to the festival are becoming somewhat easier to obtain. If you are an intrepid (and somewhat obsessed) Wagnerite, you can now get to Bayreuth without waiting 10 years for the Wagner computer to admit you. Ho-jo-to-ho!!!

And even if you should be one of the chosen few, Wagner never factored comfort into the design of the theatre. What do I mean? Well, for instance, the seats are pretty uncomfortable (not much padding and no arm rests) and the theatre is not air conditioned. This may not seem like much, but I’ve been to Bayreuth during incredible heat waves and the temperature inside the auditorium rises to over 100 degrees. In the old days – I don’t know about now – formal attired was REQUIRED, so there you were in your tuxedo with the sweat running down your back.

And did I mention that Wagner’s operas are LONG?? Das Rheingold, the “prologue” to the Ring, runs anywhere from two hours, fifteen minutes to two hours, forty-five minutes (depending on the conductor) and is played in ONE ACT!!!!! No intermission!!!!!!! No bathroom breaks – no one would DARE to attempt to leave the theatre during a performance, and you couldn’t even if you wanted to!!! And in a theatre in which, during a heat wave, you could bake a cake!!!!!

But guess what? It’s totally worth it. On the right night, with the right singers and conductor, and with a director who knows what s/he’s doing, you will have the most magical, inspiring and moving experience you’re likely to have in an opera house.

CULTURE TIP: Bayreuth Festival Website

Blog Detour – Bayreuth

Gentle Readers:

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’m enrolled in an online blogging course in order to improve my skills and, hopefully, to give you a better experience.

It turns out that today’s assignment is to write a post that builds on a comment that I posted on another blog that was of interest to me.

Therefore, I’ll apologize in advance for those of you who may say: “Why is he talking about that opera crap again?” But please bear with me, as you might find this post more interesting that you had originally thought.

Imagine this:

There is a opera house in Bayreuth (pronounced bye-roit) Germany, which was built between 1872 – 75 for the express purpose of presenting Richard Wagner’s magnum opus, Der Ring des Nibelungen. For those of you unfamiliar with the Ring, Wagner spent over 20 years composing these 4 operas or, more specifically, a Prologue (Das Rheingold) with 3 operas to follow (Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung). If nothing else, the audacity of an artist creating an entirely new style of music and operatic presentation spread over 4 evenings (and 15+ hours) has to be respected. This grand work would be presented as a Festival and, indeed his theatre is called the Festspielhaus (Festival House). The demands (and, hopefully, the rewards) of presenting the Ring placed upon the singers, orchestra, designers and, not least, the audience, would be unprecedented.

Bayreuth - R Wagner
Richard Wagner – The Meister

Why Bayreuth? Wagner wanted a location that was far away from virtually anything that would interfere with the audience’s complete concentration on and attention to his Ring. Additionally, he needed a huge stage on which to present the operas. There is another opera house in Bayreuth that Wagner thought might work, as the stage was unusually deep. However, when Wagner saw the opera house, he thought it was too rococo for him and the Ring. He wanted something much simpler that, again, would not distract his audience from what he had called his Gesamtkunstwerk, defined by Webster as “an art work produced by a synthesis of various art forms (such as music and drama)”.

Bayreuth - the Other Opera House
The other opera house – too rococo??

And another challenge that continues to this day: Bayreuth is not easy to get to (unless you live somewhere in Europe and like to drive). The first time I attended the Festival, I was able to fly from New York to Frankfurt and then fly on a “puddle-hopper” to Bayreuth. Nowadays, you’d need a private plane to fly into Bayreuth, which, in the alternative, leaves you with a 4+ hour train ride from Frankfurt (with a change of train in Nuremberg). It’s a LONG trip!

Bayreuth Map
How to get to Bayreuth

In order to get his theatre built, Wagner finagled the funds from mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, who was entirely under Wagner’s spell ever since he had seen a performance of Lohengrin as a child. (Wagner had that effect on many people. He was, by most accounts, a terrible person but, arguably, the most important and influential artist of the 19th century.)

Bayreuth Ludwig
King Ludwig of Bavaria

The theatre was unique when it was built and still is. Inspired by the Greek amphitheaters, the main floor is fan-shaped and has 30 rows. Behind and above are several sections (loge and balcony) and, of course, a royal box for the Swan King (Ludwig). There are 1,900 seats altogether and no boxes for the “important people”. Seating was intended to be entirely democratic.


The Festspielehaus

Bayreuth - Interior
Inside the Festspielhaus

The most unusual feature of the theatre is that the orchestra pit is famously and entirely concealed from view of the audience. Wagner intentionally designed it this way so that there would be no distractions when watching his grand works. Additionally, Wagner’s theatre was the first ever to present the operas with the house lights entirely turned off, an innovation at the time. In this way, the audience, sitting entirely in the dark, couldn’t “yoo-hoo” at friends and frenemies during the performance and had to pay attention. The beginning of Das Rheingold with its ominous E-flat bass notes which morph into the music of the Rhine river is played in complete darkness, so dark that you can barely see your hand in front of your face. Imagine what that must have been like for audiences accustomed to a totally different experience when attending the opera. It was nothing less than revolutionary.

Bayreuth Orchestra Pit
The invisible orchestra pit

Wagner originally had the crazy idea that he would build this theatre, the Ring would be presented and, afterwards, the theatre would be torn down. Well, that didn’t happen, did it? Wiser heads (including his own) prevailed and after the world premiere of the completed Ring in 1876, plans were immediately made for another Festival at which all of the mistakes of the first year (and there were many, many mistakes) would be corrected.

But it was another 6 years before the next Festival and, as it happened, the Ring was not presented. Instead, it was the world premiere of Parsifal that the audience heard and which Wagner had composed with the Festspielhaus’ unique acoustic in mind. This time, Wagner had a complete triumph: the perfect opera, with the perfect cast and a perfect production (perfect, at least, for 1882). Buoyed by this success, plans were made to get the Ring back into the theatre pronto. And then, 6 months later, Wagner died in Venice.

It took several years, but the Festival was eventually resurrected by Wagner’s widow, Cosima (who, incidentally, was the daughter of Franz Liszt).

Bayreuth R Wagner Cosima Siegfried
Family Portrait: Cosima, Siegfried, Richard

Over time, certain traditions were created that continue to the present day. It was decided that, in addition to the Ring and Parsifal, only the Master’s mature works (Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, Lohengrin, Die Meistersinger and Tristan und Isolde) would be presented. Without fail, the Festival would open each year on July 25th and close on August 28th. The Festival would be a workshop, at which each production would be presented for several years and, in each successive season, return to the rehearsal studio to refine, improve and rethink each opus.

After Cosima’s death, the Festival was handed over to her son, Siegfried (who, by the way, was GAY, but people didn’t talk about such things back then). Upon his premature death in 1930, the Festival was taken over (stolen??) by his widow (wait – he was MARRIED????), Winifred, who presided over the Festival for the next 14 tumultuous years.

You see, during the 1920s, she had become friends with this up and coming politician with whom she was much enamored. In fact, she was so bewitched by this charismatic young man that, or so the story goes, she provided him with the paper on which he wrote his most famous book: Mein Kampf. And that’s how Adolf Hitler – who was Richard Wagner’s #1 fan – came to be a fixture at Bayreuth through the 1930s and, finally, the 1944 Festival, after which the theatre shut down (almost for good).

Bayreuth - Hitler
Winifred, Adolf and Wagner Progeny

But wait: Siegfried and Winifred had 2 sons – Wieland and Wolfgang who, after the war (and after being denazified), were allowed to reopen the Festival in 1951. Because there was no money, and because there could be no compromises on the presentation of the music, Wieland caused another revolution by what he put on the stage which was, basically, nothing except the singers, some very simple set pieces (such as a circular platform for the presentation of the Ring) and the most effective lighting that had to that time been seen in a theatre. It caused a sensation: although the old guard was outraged at what they were (or more correctly, weren’t) seeing, there were others who were enchanted and, in fact, relieved not to be seeing all that Teutonic stuff strewn all over the stage.

I think it was a masterstroke of luck that the Festival was practically bankrupt after the war, which enabled Wieland and, to a much lesser extent, Wolfgang (who didn’t possess anywhere near the talent of his brother) to create a new style of presenting their grandfather’s work, which completely severed it from any connection to Hitler and the Nazis. In fact, Wieland was solely responsible for ushering in “Der Neue Bayreuther” or New Bayreuth.

Compare and contrast:

Bayreuth - Original Rheinmaidens
The original Rhinemaidens, 1876

Bayreuth - Chereau Rhinemaidens
Patrice Chereau’s Rhinemaidens, 1976

Since 1951 and the reopening of the postwar Festival, there have been more revolutions: the Centenary Ring in 1976, staged by the late, great Patrice Chereau and conducted by Pierre Boulez. It was Chereau’s concept to present the operas in Wagner’s own time (and during the Industrial Revolution) and to focus on the evils of capitalism and anti-Semitism. Chereau, who had directed only one opera before taking on the Ring, was a masterful director who had no preconceived notions about these operas and worked from the text. The singers in this production who most benefitted from working with Chereau – Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde, Donald McIntyre as Wotan, Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Heinz Zednik as both Loge and Mime – gave the performances of their careers and presented acting that was so natural and believable that it created a very special experience for the audience.

Bayreuth - Chereau ca 1976
Patrice Chereau, ca. 1976

Bayreuth Chereau Rheingold

Bayreuth Chereau Walkure Jones Hofmann

Bayreuth Chereau Walkure

Bayreuth Chereau Gotterdammerung
Images from the Chereau Centenary Ring, 1976

Two interesting anecdotes about these premiere performances:

The initial performance of each opera was broadcast around the world and the audience grew more and more testy as each production unfolded. Now it wasn’t necessarily unusual to hear booing at the Festspielhaus at the end of a performance, but how about at the beginning of Act III of Götterdämmerung DURING THE MUSIC?? You can actually hear the opening of the act, imagine the curtain rising and, then, there it is – LOTS of boos, along with some segments of the audience “shushing” the dissenters, or were THEY the dissenters?? The production was so controversial that it’s hard to tell.

Fast forward to the Festival of 1980 and the retirement of Chereau’s Ring. I happened to hear the very last performance of  Götterdämmerung on a radio broadcast and what a difference 4 years makes. At the conclusion of Götterdämmerung, the curtain calls (and cheering, no boos this time) lasted for something like NINETY minutes! Whatever it was that repelled and outraged the audience in 1976, they were now completely under the spell of a masterful and game changing production.

So, after all that, you wanna go to Bayreuth? Any opera lover worth her salt should make that pilgrimage at least once. Hold on. It’s not that easy.

Remember when I said that the theatre had 1,900 seats? Generally speaking, there are 30 performances presented each year for a total of 57,000 available seats. However, attendees to Bayreuth are not going to travel all that way to see one show – they’ll probably want to see everything presented that season (usually the Ring and 3 other operas).

So, there are 57,000 available seats. But each year, the Festival gets something like 250,000 requests for seats. And each of those people wants to see everything, too. In the past, ticketing was managed by the “Wagner computer” and, if you applied every year without fail (you’d be punished if you missed even one year), the typical waiting period to actually get seats was about 10 years!!! Nowadays, some tickets for each season are available on the internet at the Festival’s website and, if you’re fast and lucky enough, you might even secure seats. These intrepid souls may actually hop to the front of the line and get in, and good luck to you!

As if that weren’t enough, Wagner never factored comfort into the design of the theatre. What do I mean? Well, for instance, the seats are pretty uncomfortable (not much padding and no arm rests) and the theatre is not air conditioned. This may not seem like much, but I’ve been to Bayreuth during incredible heat waves and the temperature inside the auditorium rises to over 100 degrees. In the old days – I don’t know about now – formal attired was REQUIRED, so there you were in your tuxedo with the sweat running down your back.

And did I mention that Wagner’s operas are LONG?? Das Rheingold, the “prologue” to the Ring, runs anywhere from two hours, fifteen minutes to two hours, forty-five minutes (depending on the conductor) and is played in ONE ACT!!!!! No intermission!!!!!!! No bathroom breaks – no one would DARE to attempt to leave the theatre during a performance, and you couldn’t even if you wanted to!!! And in a theatre in which, during a heat wave, you could bake a cake!!!!!

But guess what? It’s totally worth it. On the right night, with the right singers and conductor, and with a director who knows what s/he’s doing, you will have the most magical, inspiring and moving experience you’re likely to have in an opera house.

CULTURE TIP: Bayreuth Festival Website

PS. Part of my assignment is to link this post to the blog which inspired it. Here ’tis:

Emily Abroad

SEX! LUST! MURDER! DEPRAVITY!! LULU RETURNS TO THE MET

Considered by many to be the greatest opera of the 20th century, Alban Berg’s 2nd and final opera, Lulu, will open in a new production by William Kentridge at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, November 5th. It is one of the most anticipated performances of the season.

See the Trailer for Lulu

Lulu had its Met premiere on March 18, 1977, in a John Dexter production, conducted by James Levine and with Carole Farley in the title role. At the time of his death in 1935, Berg had completed only portions of the 3rd act (including the opening, the interlude between scenes one and two, and the grim finale). The Met performed acts one and two and, then, interpolated a third act by using the material that Berg had completed, adding music from his Lulu Suite and spoken dialogue from the source material, Frank Wedekind’s two Lulu plays.

Lulu - 1977
Lulu at the Met in 1977

Even though Berg had left an incomplete score, there was enough material available for it to be finished. Following Berg’s death, Austrian musician Erwin Stein prepared a vocal score of the complete 3rd act, working from Berg’s sketches.

Berg’s widow – Helene – reached out to influential composer Arnold Schoenberg to complete the orchestration of the 3rd act, a task he at first accepted, but subsequently declined. The public story is that, upon reflection, he decided that the scope of work would be too time consuming; another explanation for Schoenberg’s change of heart is that he was offended by the use of an anti-Semitic slur – “Saujud” or “pig-Jew” – in the libretto. Helene, being fiercely protective of the opera, thereafter refused to allow anyone else to complete the 3rd act and, until her death in 1976, the opera was performed in the two-act version and sometimes, as in the 1977 Met production, a 3rd act was interpolated from material that was available.

Immediately following Helene’s death, the rights to complete the work became available and the project was entrusted to Viennese composer and conductor, Friedrich Cerha. Although his work was not finished in time for the 1977 Met performances, the world premiere of the complete Lulu was presented by the Paris Opera on February 24, 1979, conducted by Pierre Boulez, produced by Patrice Chereau (who, three years previously, had had a hugely controversial success with his production of the centenary Der Ring des Niebelungen at the 1976 Bayreuth Festival), and with famed Canadian soprano Teresa Stratas in the title role. The Met premiere of the three-act Lulu was in December 1980, again with Levine on the podium and Stratas onstage as Lulu.

Lulu - 1980
Teresa Stratas as Lulu – 1980

Berg based his opera on two plays by Frank Wedekind: Earth Spirit (1895) and Pandora’s Box (1904). (If Wedekind seems familiar to you, it’s because it was his source material that was used in the 2006 Broadway musical, Spring Awakening.)

A new production of Lulu is always met with great anticipation because of the demands placed on all participants – from the conductor to the singers to the director and the designers, and, not least, the audience – everyone is challenged to up his game.

What is it about Lulu that is so exciting and, yet, so formidable?

While it can be argued that many operas are music first and theatre second, Lulu is theatrical to its core. To borrow an unattractive phrase used to describe the “old style” of operatic acting: you cannot park and bark but, rather, you must give a fully committed performance both musically AND dramatically. Both the Chereau and Dexter productions were not only fastidiously musical but, also, fabulously theatrical and cast with amazing singing actors, led by the charismatic Stratas.

There are no fewer than 24 characters and, for purely dramatic reasons (and as indicated in Berg’s score), some singers play multiple roles. The title role requires not only the embodiment of the ultimate femme fatale, but also a voice that can handle a huge vocal range, coloratura, and declamation. In order to succeed, whoever portrays Lulu must also have star quality and the ability to seduce every character (less one) onstage as well as everyone in the audience. It is a tall order.

I am no musicologist by any measure, but I can tell you that the musical structure of Lulu is like a palindrome, which is fitting for the rise and fall saga of Lulu herself. While the musical composition relies on the 12-tone system, Berg brought to his score an intensely romantic approach. Operagoers who might be asked: “What would you prefer to see tonight – Aida or Lulu?” – will invariably choose the former because they believe that the music of Verdi will enchant them; but the more discerning operagoer must always choose Lulu: first, because it’s rarely presented and, more importantly, the musical riches and beauty of the score are irresistible.

The Met’s new production of Lulu will be directed by the great South African artist William Kentridge. He is renowned for his prints, drawings and – especially important to any production of Lulu – his animated films. He made a spectacular debut at the Met in 2010 with the company’s premiere production of Shostakovich’s opera, The Nose. Anthony Tommasini reported in his New York Times’ review of March 6, 2010:

“It has become commonplace at the Metropolitan Opera for directors and designers of new productions, especially modernist high-concept ones, to be lustily booed by a sizeable contingent of the audience during opening night ovations.

“But on Friday night, when the met introduced its production of Shostakovich’s early opera, ‘The Nose’, the South African artist William Kentridge, who directed this production, helped design the sets and created the videos that animate the staging, received the heartiest bravos.”

Lulu plays to all of Kentridge’s strengths as a director. Here is a brief interview with him from the Met’s website:

William Kentridge discusses Lulu

Print Interview with William Kentridge

The Met has assembled, arguably, the most luxurious cast available today. Marlis Petersen is today’s “go-to” Lulu, having appeared in many productions going back to 1997. Besides having the vocal chops to get through this marathon role, she is also a stage animal who makes this character come alive in the most disturbing ways. I saw her in the last revival of the Dexter production about 5 years ago and she was sensational. From Steve Smith’s New York Times’ review of May 9, 2010:

“In the German soprano Marlis Petersen, the Met has a charismatic, technically assured protagonist. That Ms. Petersen’s Lulu was rarely seductive in any genuine sense seemed to be precisely her point: more often than not, she was both a scarred adolescent fascinated with the powers of her sublime figure and face and an amoral kitten prone to remorselessly raking everything within reach. Her wasted placidity in the final scene was deeply affecting.”

MET-Lulu-2015
Marlis Petersen as Lulu

Making her role debut as the Countess Geschwitz, who may be the only character who truly loves Lulu (and, perhaps, the first openly lesbian character in all opera), will be Susan Graham, whose illustrious career includes such defining roles Didon in Les Troyens, the title character in Iphigénie en Tauride, and Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust. She has also championed contemporary opera, appearing in leading roles in Vanessa, The Aspern Papers, Dead Man Walking and The Great Gatsby.

Graham
Susan Graham

Finally, what would a new production be without a whiff of scandal? On Friday, October 2nd (a/k/a “news-dump-day”), the Met discreetly announced that James Levine, Music Director of the Met who has conducted all but a handful of the Met’s 35 performances of Lulu, had “dropped out” of the new production – 5 weeks before the work’s scheduled premiere. Mr. Levine has had many health challenges over the past half-dozen years, but it does seem odd that he would withdraw from performances of an opera that he has championed over the years so close to the first performance. Perhaps there’s more to tell, but that will have to wait for another day.

In the meantime, I encourage anyone with an interest in great music theatre to get your tickets for Lulu. And, if you’re unable to make it to the Met to see it, you could instead attend the high definition transmission, which will be shown all over the world, on Saturday, November 21st at 12:30 PM (ET).

See Lulu at the Metropolitan Opera

See Lulu at a Theatre Near You