American Lulu?

(Originally published 21/09/2013.)

American Lulu is difficult. Difficult in the way that Brechtian theatre is meant to be difficult: it is alienating, obtuse, sometimes crude, sometimes absurd. Difficult in the way that Berg’s opera too is difficult: in its jarring musical language, in its mere semblance of narrative; in its unnerving portrayal of the Male Gaze’s destructive glare. But, unfortunately for its obviously talented cast and production team, also difficult for all sorts of reasons emerging from a poorly-thought-through premise. Its attitude to race is confusing at best, as is its approach to the gender politics that composer Olga Neuwirth wanted to redefine. Its score is almost schizophrenic, flitting (in some cases line-by-line) between Second Viennese School serialism and the sort of ‘jazz’ that only a classically-trained composer could write. Above all, though, there is difficulty with its initial proposition: rather than offering a ‘new interpretation’, Neuwirth’s offers little more than Berg in a kind of musical modern-dress.

Perhaps the first question that should be asked is ‘what makes American Lulu American?’ Neuwirth would, presumably, answer by pointing to the score’s jazz-inflected (infected?) sound-world (populated with an orchestra augmented by four saxophones, a drum kit, and electric guitar), and its setting amid the struggle for African-American civil rights. Throwing in a sax-heavy pentatonic scale has been musical shorthand for ‘America’ since the ’20s, but in Neuwirth’s score it comes across as a peculiar tokenism. Porgy and Bess, one of the few serious attempts to engage with African-American music in the operatic canon, treats its musical language with respect. Gershwin, whether led by motives that would now be considered patronising or not, saw a depth of expression in blues idioms that drew him to view this music as a music that could tell its own story. Neuwirth’s score, in comparison, seems to use jazz as a citation, rather than an expressive language in its own right; as if believing that putting plunger-mutes on Berg’s trumpets will transform Vienna into New Orleans with a single con sordini. It would be wrong to entirely disregard Neuwirth’s changes to the score, as some critics have done; her completion of Act 3 is stylistically consistent (albeit with the hybrid style she establishes herself in Acts 1 and 2), and there is genuine merit in the fusion of twelve-tone language and jazz that some later scenes pull off. The problem is that, as with other aspects of the production, the use of jazz comes across as exactly that: use. American Lulu sees jazz as a device rather than a language, a tool rather than a means of expression. This reflects a larger problem with the work as a whole — its ‘Americanness’ comes across as the sum of forced-together superficial elements, rather than coming from the heart of the drama.

This cardboard cut-out Americana is also to be found in its non-musical aspects. While Berg’s opera uses character archetypes named only by their professions (‘the gymnast’, ‘the banker’ etc.), a reductionist technique that fits well with the aesthetic of Brechtian epic/dialectical theatre, Neuwirth’s archetypes are modelled on what seem to be outsiders’ caricatures of American life: the sleazy, cigar-chomping tycoon; the black pimp in a fancy suit; the greaseball nightclub owner; perhaps most absurdly, the fully kitted-up American football player, who bursts on-stage in slow motion, as if mid-touchdown. While these characters are still in keeping with a Brechtian aesthetic, their use comes across (like the music) as clumsy and tokenistic.

These costume changes (for that is all they are) would be fine, though, if the central theses of Neuwirth’s adaptation were adequately realised. The score’s imitation-jazz would be fine if issues of race were adequately discussed; and the comic animation at the centre of the work would  work well if Lulu’s mental health and agency were properly considered. As it is, though, the void at the core of the work throws its more obvious, superficial changes into relief.

This Rosa Parks-shaped hole in the work’s racial politics needs to be discussed, but before dealing with its onstage presentation, it is worth noting that this was perhaps the most ethnically-mixed audience I’ve ever seen at a ‘classical’ performance (in terms of ratio, even matching last year’s Porgy and Bess at ENO). The fact that this 80%-white audience can be considered progressive and diverse is telling in itself (though the ratio was closer to 70% at the end, as it seemed like most of the white people walked out mid-Act 2). Nevertheless, if ‘hybrid’ works like this can help opera shift away from the white-man demographic then, whatever the flaws, they are perhaps worthy of encouragement.

This mixed audience presents a problem: the production wants the audience to be white. The work’s ‘message’ depends on making the audience feel complicit in Lulu’s downfall; making viewers uncomfortable by forcing us into the position of watching a black artist being paraded on stage in a Josephine Baker banana skirt. You, says the play, are on the side of the club promoter, and the pimp. Look at what you are making her do. The programme notes tell us how to feel about this: ‘She is an exotic creature trapped on a stage before a paying public, forced to re-enact her life story. We listen and watch but do nothing and so become complicit in her nightly repeated murder. […] The only way she will stop singing is to stop breathing and we will not leave until she has died.’ (John Fulljames – Director). While this technique has a long operatic history, and is undoubtably effective (for example, the audience’s admiration for the boy Tadzio in Death in Venice‘s ‘Games of Apollo’ forces us into the position of complicity with Aschenbach’s unsettling devotion), the impact of this revelation is somewhat dulled when a) the programme notes tell us you’ve been bad before we even see the events in question, and b) when a mixed-race audience has specifically come to see a Lulu who ‘confidently searches for her own form of expression, her own identity’ (Neuwirth). Unlike Berg’s original staging, this audience is there because they want to be on Lulu’s side. To promise Lulu ‘telling her own story’, then present little more than Berg’s original while calling the audience out as objectifying racists seems something of a mixed message.

Perhaps that is the point: it lures us in with promises of a struggle for Civil Rights and agency, then asks us to question whether 21st-century white people watching a struggle for (racial/sexual) emancipation is any less ‘othering’ than when our 20th-century forebears leered at what was beneath the banana-skirt. If that is the message, it throws up issues for Neuwirth’s score: one cannot forget that, through most of jazz’s early recording history, it was marked as ‘Race Music’. Neuwirth’s score, using jazz as little more than a musical shorthand for ‘Black America’, falls back on this same racial essentialism that has plagued jazz from its very beginning–if the audience are guilty of ‘othering’ Lulu, Neuwirth ‘others’ an entire culture.

The paraphernalia of Civil Rights (the onstage gramophone playing Martin Luther King speeches over scene changes; Lulu’s use of the Black Power salute) further confuse the work’s outlook on race and gender. In the prologue to Act 1, the Pimp asks Lulu why, despite having money and devoted clients, she’s so ‘insatiable’, with the implication that Lulu feels unfulfilled as the struggle for social emancipation is making slow progress. This phrasing is odd: through the rest of the play, Lulu’s ‘insatiability’ is sexual. Were this a one-off ambiguous phrasing, the presentation of Civil Rights and Lulu’s sex-drive as linked could probably be passed over, but it recurs. When rejecting the love of the jazz singer Eleanor as weak and feminine, Lulu raises her fist into the Black Power salute. This bizarre assault on her own gender while drawing attention to her race is seriously problematic: part of what drove Black prostitution and objectification in the early twentieth century was a belief (among white men, of course) that Black women were supremely erotic beings, with unmatched sexual appetite–part of Josephine Baker’s fame rested on her reputation as a voracious lover. Presenting Lulu as a sexual and racial being, and presenting in these offhand gestures race and sexuality as being linked is hugely problematic, especially in a production that mimics Baker’s dance itself. The only other black character is the Pimp, another being defined in relation to sexuality (even the jazz singer is white). Calling out the audience for their role in Lulu’s demise seems something of a double standard when the play itself is just as guilty of racial essentialism.

These ideological problems undercut the excellent practical elements of the production. Angel Blue as Lulu delivers a fantastic performance in a role perhaps more difficult than Berg’s original, and Jaqcui Dankworth as Eleanor provided a striking timbral contrast to the otherwise operatic vocal soundworld. (Also, is theirs the first onstage interracial homosexual relationship in opera?) The hanging beads encircling the stage provided a literal ‘fourth wall’, made entirely opaque at the end in a wonderful, almost-too-literal Brechtian moment of alienation. Lulu bursts through the wall into the audience, and it is here where her murder is enacted; this could have been a very powerful moment were the work’s outlook not so confused.

This confusion seems brought on by a dissonance between Neuwirth’s tokenistic Americana and the troubling messages on race and gender that such an adaptation of Berg’s supplies. Arguably, the same messages could be better imparted if American Lulu was instead simply a production of Lulu with an inventive staging. While many see re-writing Berg’s score as a vile transgression, similar critics usually have no problem with radical alterations to the composer’s intentions regarding the opera’s staging; and although it is interesting that music is seen as exempt from alteration (even generally with regard to making cuts), in this case I would argue that a more conventional approach to the music would have been a better way of presenting Neuwirth’s argument. A staging of Berg’s Lulu with a black protagonist set in the American South in the mid-twentieth century could have dealt with Civil Rights in perhaps a more nuanced way than the overblown Americanisms of American Lulu‘s staging and music allow.

Despite its strong performances and occasional innovation, American Lulu is brought down by a disjuncture between powerful issues and tokenistic Hollywood clichés of the American underbelly. Using Lulu to confront ongoing racial and sexul issues in this manner had the possibility to be sensational. American Lulu, caught up in its own stylisticism, fails to achieve this potential.

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