Alban Berg’s opera Lulu is based on the plays Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) and Die Büchse der Pandora (Pandora’s Box) by Frank Wedekind. Berg wrote the libretto in 1928 and he was occupied with composing the opera until nearly the end of his life, breaking off to write his Violin Concerto in 1935. The drama is set in the late nineteenth century and revolves around the troubled life and death of Lulu, a femme fatale. During the course of the opera, Lulu scales the social ladder by successively seducing a series of men, who later either commit suicide or are murdered by Lulu herself. By the third act, she is reduced to working as a prostitute in London where she is finally killed at the hands of Jack the Ripper.  

In terms of structure, the work is conceived on a large scale as a palindrome or mirror, a concept that shapes not only the musical text but also the drama. The midpoint of the work in Act 2 coincides with a silent film depicting Lulu’s arrest, trial, imprisonment and liberation, for which the composer gave detailed instructions. Berg also makes use of the twelve-tone technique in the opera, assigning a different tone row (sequence of 12 notes) to each character, thereby highlighting their individual profiles. 

The third act was left unfinished at Berg’s death and the opera was initially performed and recorded as a two-act work. It was first performed in this form by the Zürich Opera on 2 June 1937. After Berg’s death, his widow initially invited Arnold Schoenberg to complete the orchestration based on the composer’s draft score for Act 3. Schoenberg declined and Helene Berg thereafter refused to allow anyone else to attempt a completion, even though the materials that Berg left behind for the third act were largely complete, at least in short score. Although a vocal score of the complete opera, including Act 3, was published in 1935 it was not until after Helene’s death in 1976 that the work could be staged in full. A completion by the composer Friedrich Cerha, which is the version now usually staged in opera houses around the world, was first performed in Paris in 1979.

Alban Berg

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