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Lulu in Historical Context

Alan Oke and Marlis Petersen in the title role in Berg's Lulu. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Alan Oke and Marlis Petersen in the title role in Berg’s Lulu. Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

Alban Berg’s Lulu is a complex, psychological thriller that became one of the most important and notorious stage works of the 20th century. Berg (1885-1935) adapted from the Lulu plays by German dramatist Frank Wedekind, who also wrote Spring Awakening.

The opera draws from similar themes in the plays: loss of innocence and the high price of immorality, as the limitlessly seductive and sexually oppressed protagonist rises and falls as a victim of society. She lures a string of men and women then destroys them – eventually destroying herself. She embodies all the frightening aspects of the human condition and the complexity of female sexuality in an oppressive society.

Alban Berg (1885 - 1935)

Alban Berg (1885 – 1935)

Berg started working on this iconic 12-tone opera in 1929 after he was done with his first successful work, Wozzeck, but died before he could finish the third and final act. The first time Berg had ever heard any of the music of Lulu live was two weeks before his death.

The unfinished version of the opera premiered in 1937 in Zurich and it continued to be performed as a fragment until the 70s.

Efforts to finish the score were hindered by Berg’s widow until 1977, when Austrian composer Friedrich Cerha completed the third act based on Berg’s notes. The three-act version of the opera was performed for the first time in 1979 in Paris.

To celebrate the 10th season of GP at the Met, Great Performances presents short highlights of what was happening in the world the year of each opera’s world premiere, in the year of the Met Opera premiere and in this case, other important dates surrounding Lulu.

1848: Spring of Nations / French Revolution

Even though there were no specific dates mentioned in the opera, one can recognize enough references to conclude the setting as late 19th-century Europe, more specifically Vienna, Paris and London. It references revolution in Paris and characters like Jack the Ripper.

1935: Alban Berg dies

Feb 26: German Luftwaffe is re-formed under Reichsmarshall Hermann Goering.

Dec 26: Stalin views Dmitri Shostakovich’s opera, Lady Macbeth.

1937: Lulu premieres in Zurich

Mar 24: National Gallery of Art established by Congress.

May 3: Margaret Mitchell wins Pulitzer Prize for “Gone With the Wind.”

May 6: German airship Hindenburg explodes in flames at Lakehurst, NJ, killing 36.

Sept 21: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” published by George Allen and Unwin in London.

Nov 23: John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men premieres in New York City.

1963: Lulu premieres in the U.S. at Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico

Jan 22: The Élysée treaty of cooperation between France and Germany signed by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer.

March 21: Alcatraz prison in San Francisco Bay closed.

Aug 28: Martin Luther King Jr. delivers his “I have a dream” speech at Lincoln Memorial, Washington, D.C.

Nov 22: John F. Kennedy is assassinated during a motorcade through Dealey Plaza and downtown Dallas, Texas.

1976: Helene Berg dies

The death of Helene Berg, Alban’s widow, makes way for a new completed version of the opera by Friedrich Cerha.

1977: Lulu premieres at the Met Opera

Mar 3: Tenor Luciano Pavarotti and PBS opera series Live from the Met both make their American television debuts. Pavarotti stars in a complete production of Puccini’s La Bohème. The series was viewed by more than four million people on public television.

Dec 16: Mikhail Baryshnikov’s 1976 production of Tchaikovsky’s beloved ballet The Nutcracker comes to CBS a year after premiering onstage at the Kennedy Center. This adaptation will become the most popular television production of the work.

1979: Complete, three-act version of Lulu premieres

Feb 24: Three-act Lulu opens in Paris at Opera Garnier.

Jul 28: Three-act premieres for the first time in the U.S. in Santa Fe.

1980: Met Opera presents the three-act version of Lulu

The Met Opera season opened with the complete version of Lulu, produced by John Dexter and staged by Jocelyn Herbert. It aired live on television on December 20.

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