Olga Neuwirth wanted to be the next Miles Davis. She was, as a teenager, a promising jazz trumpeter. But an accident damaged her jaw, and her trumpet-playing career. Today, Neuwirth is one of the most important contemporary classical composers, her signature her ability to draw upon, and weave together, a multitude of sources – from jazz to atonalism, from electronic to chamber music – into a musical collage, not exactly seamless, but where the joins become part of the performance. You will find her work at the meeting point of music, theatre, film and performance art.
American Lulu is Neuwirth’s homage to fellow-Austrian composer Alban Berg. Written in the 1930s, Berg’s Lulu is one of the masterpieces of twentieth century opera. Based on two fin-de-siecle plays by Frank Wedekind, Lulu tells the story of the social rise and fall of the eponymous heroine, a femme fatal, whose irresistible sexual magnetism draws to her one man after another, each man becoming a rung in her rise up the social scale, every man ending a corpse. Like Wedekind’s plays, Berg’s opera is an ironic critique of the culture of decadence and of illusory social freedom.
In American Lulu, Neuwirth has reworked Berg’s original, transposing the story to the American South in the 1950s, and rescoring the music. At its heart is an exploration not of sex and decadence but of race and discrimination.
Musically, the rescoring has punch, especially Act 3. Berg never completed the opera. So, Neuwirth has written a new final Act, musically distinct from the first two, much jazzier in its feel. As a story, however, American Lulu works less well. There is a disconnection between the tale of Lulu and the background of the civil rights movement that frames that tale (a background comprised largely of speeches and quotes from Martin Luther King). All the characters, Lulu in particular, seem oblivious to the social ferment around them. Neuwirth, when I interviewed her, suggested that King’s words act in the manner of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, providing commentary upon the story. But the gap between story and background is such that the framing device does not really serve to illuminate Lulu’s tragedy, but rather all too often has the character of agitprop.
American Lulu is nonetheless an intriguing and inventive work, and it has been a real privilege to spend time with the Opera Group, one of Britain’s most innovative companies, as it has developed a new production of the opera, directed by John Fulljames, and with the wonderful American soprano Angel Blue in the lead role. It premiered at the Bregenz Festival in Austria in August, played at the Edinburgh Festival and opens next week at the Young Vic in London. I have made two short films with the company, to explain the background to American Lulu and the thinking behind the new production. It was a particular pleasure to travel to Bregenz to discuss the opera with Olga Neuwirth.
So, here are the two films, Behind the Scenes at American Lulu, parts 1 and 2, together with the full interview with Olga Neuwirth.