Lulu at Metropolitan Opera – synopsis
Composer and librettist
Libretto by the composer, based on the plays Earth Spirit and Pandora’s Box by Frank Wedekind
World premiere: Zürich, Stadttheater, June 2, 1937. First performance of the three-act version: Paris, Opéra, March 16, 1979
The Animal Tamer invites the audience to see his menagerie—featuring “the serpent Lulu.”
Germany, late 19th century. Lulu is sitting for her portrait, observed by Dr. Schön, a wealthy newspaper publisher with whom she is having an affair. Left alone with her, the Painter tries to seduce Lulu, when her husband, the Physician, is heard at the door. Forcing his way into the room, he collapses from a heart attack. Lulu, who seems strangely uninvolved by what has just happened, realizes she is a rich widow, and the Painter wonders what the future will bring for her.
Lulu and the Painter have married. She is surprised to learn that Schön has become engaged. After the Painter has left, Schigolch enters, an old man and friend of Lulu’s who may be her father or a former lover. She gives him money and he leaves as Schön arrives. Schön, who years before found Lulu as a waif and educated her, has kept her as his mistress but now wants her out of his life so that he can marry. When the Painter returns, Schön tells him about Lulu’s past. Horrified, the Painter kills himself by cutting his throat. Schön, seeking to avoid a scandal, calls the police. He is shocked by Lulu’s cold behavior after her husband’s suicide, but she tells him that, regardless of his protestations, he will marry her anyway.
Some time later, Lulu is appearing in a ballet composed by Schön’s son Alwa. In her dressing room, she tells Alwa of her latest admirer, the Prince, who wants to take her away as his wife. After Lulu has one on stage, the Prince appears and talks to Alwa of his love for her. Suddenly Lulu storms back in: she has seen Schön in the audience with his fiancée and refuses to dance for her. Schön soon follows and demands to be left alone with Lulu. He asks her not to stop his marriage, but when she mentions her plans to marry the Prince, he realizes that he is incapable of letting her go. At Lulu’s dictation, he writes a letter to his fiancée, breaking off the engagement.
Schön and Lulu, now married, live in a luxurious home, but she continues to attract admirers. Among them is the lesbian Countess Geschwitz, who has just invited Lulu to a ball for women artists. Schön regrets that such people are now part of his life. When he and Lulu have left, the Countess returns, followed by Schigolch, an Acrobat, and a Schoolboy. Lulu joins them and all three men declare their love for her. They hide when Alwa appears. Alone, as he thinks, with Lulu, he also declares his love. Meanwhile, Schön has returned unnoticed and observes the scene. He then drives his son away and hands Lulu a revolver, demanding that she shoot herself to protect his reputation. The Acrobat runs from the room and Schön, searching everywhere, discovers the Countess and locks her in an adjoining room. Lulu justifies herself, declaring that she has never pretended to be anything but what she is. Raging, Schön forces her to her knees but the Schoolboy’s cries for help distract him. Lulu fires five shots into her husband’s back. Alwa rushes in and Lulu throws herself at his feet, begging him not to turn her over to the police.
An orchestral interlude depicts Lulu’s arrest, murder trial, imprisonment, illness with cholera, commitment to the hospital, and the plans for her escape: the Countess, who has allowed herself to be infected with the same disease, is to take Lulu’s place in the hospital.
Alwa, together with the Countess and the Acrobat, awaits Lulu’s return in Schön’s former apartment. When she arrives on Schigolch’s arm, the Acrobat is appalled by her wasted appearance and leaves, threatening to betray her to the police. Alone with Lulu, Alwa again proclaims his love and agrees to go to Paris with her.
The Acrobat proposes a toast in honor of Lulu’s birthday to a crowd assembled in Alwa’s Paris mansion. A number of the company have invested in the Jungfrau Cable Railway and question the Banker about their prospects. The Marquis, threatening to reveal Lulu to the police as Schön’s murderer, tries to blackmail her into working in a brothel, but she defies him. Everyone has been winning at cards and the Jungfrau shares are booming. When the crowd has gone to dinner, the Acrobat also tries to blackmail Lulu. Next Schigolch appears, asking her for money. Lulu breaks into tears and together with Schigolch plots to dispose of the Acrobat: they will make him believe that the Countess is in love with him, then persuade the Countess to take him to Schigolch’s lodgings where he will be killed. There is uproar as the news spreads that the Jungfrau shares have collapsed—everyone is ruined. In the general confusion Lulu escapes, just as the Marquis arrives with the police.
In a shabby garret in London, Schigolch and Alwa, now syphilitic and a derelict, await Lulu’s return from her first night as a prostitute. They hide when she enters with a client, the Professor, who remains silent throughout the proceedings. After his departure the now destitute Countess appears, bringing with her Lulu’s portrait. The picture is nailed to the wall and Lulu and her three admirers contemplate its beauty and how their fate has been bound up with it. Lulu goes into the street again, followed by the Countess, while Alwa, alone with Schigolch, reflects on the mess he has made of his life. The men hide again when Lulu returns with another client, an African Prince. In a clumsy attempt to protect Lulu, Alwa attacks the Prince, who smashes his opponent’s skull and leaves. Lulu, in despair, rushes out into the street again. Schigolch drags Alwa’s body out of sight and disappears. The Countess returns. Gazing at Lulu’s portrait, she considers suicide, but her thoughts are interrupted by Lulu’s arrival with yet another customer, Jack the Ripper. Lulu asks Jack to stay the night. They argue about money, then she leads him into her room. The Countess remains behind alone, continuing to contemplate the portrait. Suddenly Lulu is heard screaming—Jack kills her. The Countess rushes to her aid but Jack stabs her as well. He washes his hands and leaves as the dying Countess cries out for Lulu.